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L.A. Times Publisher Placed on Unpaid Leave Amid Sexual Harassment Investigation

Los Angeles Times publisher and CEO Ross Levinsohn has been in his job fewer than six months, but on Friday, he was placed on an unpaid leave while the Times parent company, Tronc, investigates past misconduct at his previous jobs, as well as two sexual-harassment settlements involving the embattled publishing executive.

It was a swift move, coming on the heels of an explosive National Public Radio report Thursday that detailed sexist and homophobic comments Levinsohn made while he held top executive positions with companies like Alta Vista, the now-defunct search engine, as well as News Corp. NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik reported on the “frat-house” culture Levinsohn created in his past workplaces, leading to the two lawsuits.

Now, Levinsohn’s job is in peril, as an outside corporate-law firm reviews the allegations – a move called for by members of the Los Angeles Times guild organizing committee, which on Friday hailed a landslide, historic vote by journalists, 248-44, to unionize.

“It is critical that in any such circumstances we conduct a thorough review so that we have a full understanding of what happened,” Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn said in a memo sent to Los Angeles Times employees Friday. “We will not hesitate to take further action, if appropriate, once the review is complete.”

In Levinsohn’s absence, Times president Mickie Rosen will lead the newspaper while editor-in-chief Lewis D’Vorkin will continue to lead the newsroom.

Friday capped what was a tumultuous cascade of events in the Times newsroom that began Thursday morning, before the NPR story broke.

Times journalists were aghast to first learn that Tronc executives were pitching a plan to investors that included calling for contributions by outside “experts” with “self-distribution/promotion capabilities,” according to a slide of the presentation. It appears to be similar to an unpaid contributor model deployed by Forbes, where D’Vorkin was chief product officer, raising fears within the Times newsroom that a similar model would soon be coming.

The mood then shifted to shock and anger, as NPR broke its story shortly after noon on Thursday, according to interviews with sources inside the newsroom. Within hours, members of the Los Angeles Times guild organizing committee had called for Levinsohn’s firing or resignation, calling him unfit to lead the newspaper. Senior editors later issued a statement saying that if the allegations were true, “the organization should not be led by anyone who has engaged in this behavior.”

Independent of the organizing committee’s statement, members of the newsroom began circulating a petition that called for Levinsohn’s ouster, saying he should be fired “without a cent more of company money.” The petition was delivered Friday to Tronc’s board of directors with nearly 200 signatures.

“To hear a comment from our publisher that’s homophobic and inappropriate is frustrating and demoralizing,” said data journalist Anthony Pesce, who was among those who signed the petition. “It makes you think, ‘Wow, I’m not valued here,’ or I’m not taken seriously if I go into a meeting or if I’m interacting with people in a professional manner, you don’t want to know that they might be thinking, ‘Oh, he’s a fag.’”

On Friday, Times journalists, along with Tronc representatives, gathered in downtown Los Angeles for the counting of ballots by officials from the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the election.

After Tronc representatives initially disputed 35 ballots over whether those employees could be considered management, the counting began. The disputed ballots were made moot after the tally reached a lopsided 244 yeses to the 44 noes. Of the 398 eligible voters, more than 80 percent cast ballots in early January.

While journalists celebrated the outcome of the vote, Tronc issued a memo to the newsroom announcing that Levinsohn had “voluntarily” agreed to the unpaid leave of absence, made immediately effective.

Levinsohn would not be the only Times executive to come under scrutiny.

A crush of Times staffers on Friday had also gathered in the office of a top editor and roped D’Vorkin into a meeting, demanding answers. They wanted to know whether he knew about the investor presentation; D’Vorkin said he did not. They also asked him directly whether he believed Levinsohn should resign. He did not give a direct answer, instead deferring to Tronc’s investigation, according to people who were present at the meeting.

He tried to leave several times, but the staffers continued to ask questions about the Times’ coverage of the developing controversy.

D’Vorkin did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment Friday.

With the election now over, members of the organizing committee are now preparing to hold an election to select union leaders and prepare for negotiations with Tronc over pay, benefits and working conditions.

For now, some members of the newsroom are heartened that the company placed Levinsohn on leave and hired an outside entity to conduct the investigation.

“The journalists at the LA Times now feel comfortable holding our bosses and our company and our parent company as responsible for their actions as we do the other people we cover,” Pesce said.

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