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Jan. 28, 2018, 11:29 p.m.

Newsonomics: Lewis D’Vorkin out at L.A. Times, more Tronc changes in the works

As Tronc dispatches yet another leadership team, attention returns to bigger questions about the company’s strategies. Can new editor Jim Kirk soothe the riled-up newsroom?

In the latest stunning development at the Los Angeles Times, Tronc is moving two of its top executives to new roles, I’ve learned. As conference calls consumed key Tronc executives this weekend, the still-in-process battle plan now includes the end of embattled Times editor-in-chief Lewis D’Vorkin’s not-quite-four-month tenure. Jim Kirk, who first joined Tronc in August, succeeds D’Vorkin as editor-in-chief, a move that Tronc confirmed to me Sunday evening would be announced on Monday. D’Vorkin moves into a new job at Tronc as chief content officer for the company as a whole.

Meanwhile, L.A. Times president Mickie Rosen, a protege of  now-suspended Times CEO and publisher Ross Levinsohn, will leave her position as well. She’ll move into a wider leadership role with Tronc, with explanation of that new position expected later this week. Levinsohn had hired both D’Vorkin and Rosen in October. An outside law firm’s investigation of Levinsohn, following an NPR report on his alleged “‘frat house’ behavior” at his previous career stops, may still take a couple more weeks.

Jim Kirk has quickly become Tronc’s top executive handyman. As Kirk takes on the job at the Times, it will become his fourth title within Tronc since being hired less than six months ago. After a new set of local buyers purchased the Chicago Sun-Times, which he headed, Tronc named Kirk “senior vice president of strategic initiatives” last summer. Then, he quickly became the L.A. Times’ interim executive editor when publisher/editor Davan Maharaj was fired. Then, 10 days ago, Tronc named him “interim editor-in-chief” of its just-bought New York Daily News, a financially ailing property now further beset by two high-profile executive sexual harassment cases. With Kirk taking the top job in Los Angeles, Tronc now must name a new top editor, interim or permanent, at the Daily News. Expect that name to be announced this week as well.

Tronc’s appointment of Kirk — given credit by a number of people in the Times newsroom for being approachable and conversational, in contrast to the aloof D’Vorkin — tells us two things. The first is that Tronc chairman Michael Ferro, who had employed Kirk at the Sun-Times when his ownership group controlled that paper, has great confidence in him. Second, Tronc’s woefully thin bench of talent — in both news leadership and business leadership, from L.A. to New York — complicates Tronc’s ability to innovate.

These moves represent the second sweep of L.A. Times management in less than half a year. The Levinsohn/Rosen/D’Vorkin team had replaced the leadership of Maharaj, along with several other newsroom leaders, towards the end of summer. This week’s sweep follows three tumultuous weeks in the life of the U.S.’s largest metro newspaper. I’ve detailed the shocks in a series of stories at the Lab. The Times’ newsroom voted more than 5-to-1 to unionize 10 days ago. An NPR investigation called out a long history of workplace harassment charges against Levinsohn, forcing an immediate suspension. Columbia Journalism Review published a takedown profile of D’Vorkin, calling him “The L.A. Times’ Prince of Darkness.”

In the midst of those moves, I began reporting on a growing roster of “secret” management hires at the Times, now numbering about a dozen. As it emerged that the hires would largely direct the new L.A. Times Network — a non-union, content syndication initiative under the auspices of a corporation separate from the long-standing Los Angeles Times Communications LLC — newsroom talk turned to “union-busting” and a “shadow newsroom.” On Friday, I pieced together the mysterious hires (leaked through Tronc’s “Workday” HR system) and Tronc’s own presentation to investors on the content network.

Around the time D’Vorkin escorted Times business editor Kimi Yoshino abruptly out of the newsroom Wednesday, apparently suspending her on accusation of “leaking,” the story boiled over and went wide. That act may have sealed the end of his time at the Times.

On Friday evening, the story got wider attention. HuffPost detailed newsroom apprehension, saying “Tronc Is Building A Shadow Newsroom Full Of Scabs, L.A. Times Staffers Fear.” The Washington Post headlined its piece “‘Anything could happen’: Amid newsroom clashes, Los Angeles Times becomes its own story.”

Throughout the month, the voice of the Times’ newsroom staff, both through its new union representation and otherwise, has risen. Staffers demanded Levinsohn’s departure after the NPR story was published, and then decried the uncivil expulsion of a well-liked editor from their midst.

Even on the cocksure Michael Ferro, the combination of public and employee pressures has clearly made an impact, likely upending the new management plan in Los Angeles.

Now, Tronc must pick up the Humpty Dumpty pieces of its new content syndication strategy, a strategy it has highlighted as the centerpiece of its 2018 plans. One big question: Will Ross Levinsohn return to the Times, or to another role within Tronc overall, as his two major hires are now doing? Levinsohn formally served as head of the Times. Informally, though, he’d quickly become Ferro’s point man for the long-promised digital transformation.

In fact, it was Levinsohn who had presented Tronc’s new content syndication strategy in New York on Jan. 18, the same fateful day the workplace charges against him were published. At this reading — with more Tronc announcements to come — it’s unclear how Tronc will re-scramble its new strategy.

So far, within 24 months, Ferro and his team haven’t delivered its promised transformational strategy. In his first year, Tronc’s battle with Gannett for control of the company took the company’s eye off that ball. Since Ferro successfully staved off that “hostile” bid, it’s made a series of uneven moves. On the positive side, it embraced state-of-the-art publishing technology in adopting the Washington Post’s Arc, and made progress in digital-only subscription sales. At the same time, its digital news products have insufficiently innovated and its newsrooms are in the doldrums, feeling unappreciated for the local journalism they create. Importantly, Tronc’s financial results have generally fared as poorly as its peers. CEO Justin Dearborn and CFO Terry Jimenez now prepare for an investor call with analysts to go over both fourth-quarter and total 2017 numbers. On that call, they’ll likely have a tough time talking through revenue losses that don’t support the “transformation” pitch.

Left unclear by Tronc’s latest re-shuffle is the fate of that just-announced-to-investors content syndication strategy — and the dozen or so significant hires it has made to support what is meant to be its leading growth initiative for the year.

As I’ve reported, those hires include executives from The New York Times, Hearst, GOOD Worldwide, and Hyperloop One. A number of the dozen hires, though all under contract, still remain unannounced. In fact, the unannounced include some who haven’t yet done any work for Tronc, or participated in the now-questioned content syndication strategy. It’s not even clear that they knew that they were going to work for new company — the Los Angeles Times Network LLC — rather than the established Times, when they agreed to take their positions. That’s put some of them in a sticky — now publicly sticky — situation.

In the wake of last week’s union-busting clamor, some are feeling the heat from erstwhile colleagues.

On Sunday morning, Louise Story, who would come to Tronc as a managing editor, leaving a digital managing and investigative role at The New York Times, felt it necessary to respond to a former Timesman, Joe Nocera’s tweet:

As the dust settles, these new hires will learn whether Tronc intends to continue the syndication strategy full-bore or to cut it back. Similarly, the new hires, especially those with journalistic credibility, must decide if they want to part of whatever Tronc has planned. With Levinsohn’s future role uncertain, D’Vorkin may well be in charge of the syndication effort. Finally, with the initiative being widely labeled a “union-busting” move, justifiably or not, what sort of ability will the new managers have to make it succeed? Expect one or more of the unannounced new hires to step back from coming to Tronc.

The pace of crazy-making change at the Times cannot be overstated. If Levinsohn is replaced, his successor as publisher would become the Times’ sixth in just five years — just one more index of the chaos that has engulfed an American journalistic institution, a winner of 44 Pulitzer Prizes. Beyond its once-legendary journalistic standing, the Times (along with its sister San Diego Union-Tribune) accounts for about half of all Tronc revenue. Still selling an impressive 555,000 Sunday print papers and 261,000 daily, its newsroom of 400-plus remains the envy of other major metro editors, and it continues to pump out industry-recognized outstanding work amid the turmoil. The newsroom’s and the company’s digital transformation — stuttered by roiling ownership and management changes for now more than a decade — stands far behind The New York Times and The Washington Post. And in the publishing business environment of 2018, playing an eternal game of catch-up doesn’t produce a winning strategy.

Photo by Julian used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 28, 2018, 11:29 p.m.
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