For a newspaper that has weathered years of turmoil, the Los Angeles Times is once again in the throes of a crisis.
Still reeling from the shock of publisher and CEO Ross Levinshohn being put on unpaid leave last week for past sexual harassment settlements and inappropriate behavior, the paper’s newsroom was jolted again Wednesday when business editor Kimi Yoshino was suddenly suspended and escorted out of the building with no explanation to staffers.
That same day, the paper’s editor-in-chief Lewis D’Vorkin was the subject of a 5,000 word takedown by the Columbia Journalism Review. According to more than a dozen staffers, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, the newsroom has lost confidence in D’Vorkin. That is raising questions of just how effective he can be in leading the news gathering operations of the largest newspaper on the west coast.
Since Yoshino’s suspension on Wednesday, anxiety and paranoia have enveloped a newsroom that just a week ago overwhelmingly voted to form a union.
Staffers fear that the disciplinary action taken against Yoshino is the result of an aggressive probe by D’Vorkin to learn who leaked audio recordings from two newsroom meetings that the editor held shortly after his arrival last fall. In the second meeting, D’Vorkin admonished the staff, calling the leaks “unethical” and saying whoever provided the recording to outside news organizations is “morally bankrupt.”
Times insiders believe the company is actively investigating the leaks by combing through phone records, work email accounts and company-provided phones. Some employees have resorted to communicating about the state of affairs through encrypted platforms like Signal and are they are also careful to avoid criticism of D’Vorkin on internal messaging channels like Slack.
Staffers have described a witch hunt atmosphere at the paper, driven by an editor who has been characterized as condescending and aloof. That perception was further reinforced by the CJR expose, which delved into D’Vorkin’s work history, with a headline that read: “L.A. Journalism’s ‘Prince of Darkness.’” What emerged was an unflattering portrait of a journalist who often alienates people who work for him. The piece also noted that D’Vorkin quickly cycles through jobs, including positions at the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes.
The L.A. Times did not respond to requests for interviews with D’Vorkin and Michael Ferro, the non-executive chairman of Times’ parent company Tronc.
Writers and editors at the L.A. Times are battling a distracting, multi-front upheaval while running a 24/7 news-gathering operation. While Times journalists are awaiting the outcome of an external legal investigation of Levinsohn, they are also being stonewalled about what drove Yoshino’s abrupt suspension.
“It’s no minor miracle that they put out a paper every day,” said USC journalism professor Gabriel Kahn, a former L.A. bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal.
Yoshino was meeting with the paper’s entertainment business team when D’Vorkin interrupted and led the editor away. That left business editors in the dark as their Slack messages to Yoshino regarding planning decisions for the next day’s business section went unanswered.
She left so abruptly that when a business editor managed to reach her, she asked that someone enter her office to log her out of her laptop, which she was not able to retrieve.
Business editors later met with D’Vorkin to ask for an explanation about the suspension of Yoshino, a 17-year vet of the paper and well-regarded editor who has overseen a department that had received general excellence awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in 2015 and 2016. D’Vorkin reiterated to the business editors that he could not comment on why Yoshino was suspended and declined to answer questions about her return.
On Thursday, the business desk staff circulated a letter on Twitter addressed to D’Vorkin, in support of Yoshino. “She is an exceptional manager and editor, and has demonstrated the highest levels of professionalism, integrity and ethics,” the letter read.
Also roiling the newsroom is a plan unveiled by Tronc leadership at an investors conference last week that suggested an unpaid contributor model will soon be implemented at the L.A. Times. It is similar to a strategy D’Vorkin deployed at Forbes, where he was chief product officer. Many believe that undermined the reputation of Forbes, renowned for its financial news coverage.
In a letter to Tronc’s board of directors, members of the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee warned that the strategy “would cheapen our journalism, damage our brand, betray our readers and ultimately shortchange our shareholders.”
USC’s Kahn agrees.
“This is not any way to change the revenue picture around,” he suggested. “The plan… is a rehash of what Forbes did at a moment when people are going in the opposite direction.”
The lack of communication over the direction of the company has frustrated Times staffers, who say even masthead editors have been left out of discussions around the contributor model that many fear is coming. Adding to their anxiety is the fact that some staffers have learned of the hiring of assistant managing editors who have not been announced to the newsroom, raising concerns that Tronc is hiring non-union staffers.
Staffers warned that the hiring of contractors or work performed by freelancers to carry out newsroom duties could lead to the filing of a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board.
Jim Newton, a former Los Angeles Times journalist who held a number of senior positions at the paper, including editor of the editorial pages, said the tumult at the paper will most likely hurt the Times readership.
“The clear loser in all of this are people who care about the city of Los Angeles,” said Newton, who is now a lecturer at UCLA and founding editor of Blueprint magazine, which focuses on policy issues affecting California and Los Angeles.
“The rank and file of the paper continues to bat way above their weight,” Newton said. “What gives the Los Angeles Times value to Los Angeles and beyond is the quality of its news reporting. To the extent that the newsroom can make that clear and fight for quality journalism, it’s fighting for the best interest of the Times and Tronc.”