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Jan. 26, 2018, 12:22 p.m.

Newsonomics: Who and what is the new L.A. Times Network?

And why is the Tronc newspaper treating its own newsroom as a group not to be trusted?

All of the furor consuming the Los Angeles Times’ newsroom over the past half-year may just be a prologue.

Tronc has apparently made operational a newer entity — Los Angeles Times Network LLC — to launch its just-revealed-to-investors strategy of major content creation, distribution, and syndication. This company, first registered in Delaware in March 2015, parallel to and separate from Los Angeles Times Communications LLC — looks to be the vehicle that Tronc will use to move forward on its promised “national expansion in selected verticals.” In a presentation to investment analysts in New York City last Thursday, Tronc executives highlighted investment in these topical news/features products at the top of their 2018 plans.

So far, Tronc has refused to answer its employees’ questions about the scope of the new company, and any overlap with their jobs. It has also repeatedly declined comment to the press; it didn’t respond to my request this morning.

In refusing to explain, Tronc fuels the increasing angst in the Times’ newsroom. The newsroom that just last week voted more than 5-to-1 to unionize, has begun to talk about “union-busting” and the creation of a “shadow newsroom.”

And there are bigger questions about the Times’ strategy for survival. As the paper (and Tronc) embrace a strategy that seems far afield from the most successful transformation approaches of the day, Times journalists worry about their futures. The winning strategies of industry leaders — including those of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Minneapolis’ Star-Tribune, and The Dallas Morning News — have all included a rapid acceleration of the integration of “print” and “digital”. They have all made their newsrooms a singular leading force in their new business strategies. Indications now mount that the Times and Tronc appear to be taking a contrarian path.

Unable to participate in discussion of those larger strategic issues, staffers have focused their attention on those new hires that pop up on the Times’ visible-to-employees HR system. The concern: Some of the titles of the new hires parallel those of those already in the newsroom.

So far, about a dozen newer employees, some first hired in November, appear to be working for the new entity, Los Angeles Times Network LLC. These include the hires I noted at the Lab two weeks ago, including well-regarded New York Times digital investigative editor Louise Story. They also now include Will Tacy, who has served as chief operating officer of GOOD Worldwide, as “editor.”

While Tronc refuses comment, the revelation of the new company helps connect up recent events. Consider:

  • Early in his tenure, two years ago, Tronc chairman Michael Ferro talked up the transformation of legacy newspaper brands. “Transforming Legacy Brands To Become A Modern Media Company” served as the title of last week’s Tronc presentation.
  • Ferro hired new executives early on, around the time he was renaming Tribune Publishing as Tronc, but they failed to achieve any recognizable transformation. Ferro also sought to buy Us Weekly when it went up for sale last year, and Tronc’s name as been frequently mentioned as a potential buyer for other national entertainment news businesses. The driving idea: Amass lots more entertainment content.
  • Last summer, Tronc fired publisher/editor Davan Maharaj at the Times. It then hired Ross Levinsohn, a well-traveled digital business executive with wide experience in entertainment in digital business and syndication. As Levinsohn was hired, public filings showed that his bonus compensation would focus strongly on expanded syndication of content.
  • In October, Levinsohn made an out-of-the-box hire as top editor of the Times, the largest metro newsroom in the U.S. Lewis D’Vorkin, a veteran editor known most for his reshaping of legacy Forbes magazine, took the job. Building a big content network — based on much free and cheap-to-produce content — is what made D’Vorkin’s name in the business.
  • Then, apparently in November, Levinsohn hired Rob Angel, a veteran of Hearst and IAC, as chief business development officer. Angel apparently heads the new syndication operation, and has increased hirings for that group over the last couple of months, but has kept them secret.
  • Then, last Thursday, Tronc made its syndication-focused presentation in New York, the first semi-public view of what had been building behind the scenes for two years.

Even as last week unfolded, Times staffers were increasingly asking about the new hires, whose faces and titles they saw. Who were they? What would they do? Whose jobs might they take.

They received no answers, either to informal questions or to letters addressed to management and the Tronc board. One of America’s top journalistic institutions — winner of 44 Pulitzer Prizes over the years — finds its 400-plus newsroom staffers in the dark. As Tronc plots a new strategy, it has treated its own staff as a group not to be trusted.

Two weeks ago, when I asked why he couldn’t explain top management hires that were already common knowledge within the Times building, D’Vorkin told me, “It’s not something I can talk about until the union vote is resolved.” And, now in the stretch of a week (though we’d have to figure that differently in Tronc time), Tronc and the L.A. Times face multiple new obstacles.

First, that lopsided pro-union vote, in a newsroom that many thought would be the last major American metro newsroom ever to organize, displayed the level of employee distrust in the company’s management. It’s hard not to read it as a vote of no confidence in D’Vorkin, Levinsohn, and Tronc management, including chairman Ferro and CEO Justin Dearborn.

Then, on the same day that Levinsohn and Tronc CFO Terry Jimenez laid out the new strategy in New York, Levinsohn saw himself accused of creating a “frathouse environment” throughout his career. That explosive NPR story forced Tronc to place its new publisher — and effectively its key digital business strategist — on leave and “under investigation” by an outside law firm. Headlines captured that eventful day concisely: “Los Angeles Times loses publisher, gets union.”

New intrigue in the newsroom

Then, on Wednesday, D’Vorkin shocked the staff and furthered what already been a growing rift between the new editor seen as aloof and his newsroom.

In the afternoon, business editor Kimi Yoshino was escorted out of the building, having to leave her open laptop and own belongings in place, according to staff reports, noted below in a public letter/tweet published Thursday and reproduced below.

Yoshino, a 17-year Times veteran, had been “suspended.” The likely cause, observers say, though none has yet been stated: suspicion that she had been leaking information. Tronc has long been sensitive about leaks, and employees are consequently careful about outgoing communication, knowing it may be monitored.

What might have precipitated the unusual move? Yoshino’s removal followed within a day of a scathing takedown of D’Vorkin in Columbia Journalism Review. Entitled “L.A. journalism’s prince of darkness,” Lyz Lenz’s 5,000-word piece traced D’Vorkin’s long career, and highlighted the many critics of both his leadership style and his journalism business strategies.

But Yoshino’s suspension only highlights several additional behind-the-scenes moves that display how sweeping a management and strategic change may be coming to the Times, the nation’s largest metro newspaper.

Consider the paper’s national reporting. Its own role was thrown into question by a Wall Street Journal report Wednesday that Tronc was close to a content partnership with the new high-flying news kid on the block, Axios.

Said the Journal’s Ben Mullin: “It’s unclear what such a partnership would mean for Tronc’s own political coverage and its Washington, D.C. bureau, a corps of about 16 journalists that service the company’s portfolio of newspapers across the United States. In the past, executives at Tronc have floated proposals for cutting costs by reducing staffing at the D.C. bureau or eliminating it, but were met with resistance from senior editors at the Los Angeles Times, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Those resisting senior editors, including Maharaj, are now largely gone.

Then there’s the question of the work of one of the unannounced senior hires.

Current New York Times journalist Louise Story would become a New York-based managing editor in the new order, responsible for some kind of national team. That further brings into question both the Times’ current national staff of 10 and Tronc’s D.C. contingent.

In fact, either or both of the new national team or Axios partnership could be supplemental to Tronc’s and the Times’ current work — but it’s the absence of any explanation that has fueled concerns about both.

Finally, word sweeping the Times newsroom is that another of the new management hires has been spied, “in our cafeteria, talking on the phone, in what sounded like a job interview, saying that he had been authorized “to hire five people” and that “a non-union national newsroom” was being created “to service all Tronc papers.”

Add it up, and it’s easy to see why concerns are spreading across the staff, as uncertainty goes unanswered.

When Times managers have inquired of editor D’Vorkin about the Times’ new syndication strategy — which, with its emphasis on building a new big network of “experts” and “entrepreneurs,” is a strategy straight out of his Forbes work — he’s told them, several sources say, that he’s not involved in that work and doesn’t know much about it.

Why does a syndication play have to be so secret?

Certainly, the unwillingness of Tronc and Times executives to talk about their plans, other than to investors and analysts, contributes to wider suspicions. Further, the company has placed a gag order on all its new hires — none of whom can talk about their new positions. Journalism is a business that thrives on transparency. But too many of the new owners and top managers now running newspaper companies turn instinctually to opacity, to the greater damage to their enterprises.

In fact, a straightforward new content syndication business, focused first on entertainment, could prove a viable business venture. Critics, including me, have expressed doubt that building major new nationally oriented “vertical” sites, largely supported by advertising, will work well in the Google/Facebook duopoly-dominated digital ad landscape of 2018. But there should be nothing conspiratorial nor nefarious about trying it — or in hiring a group of new talents to test it out. Unless, maybe, it’s an attempt to move what are now union jobs to non-union status. Given how long Michael Ferro and Tronc have been pondering the syndication business, union-busting doesn’t make sense as a prime motivation. Then again, in the wild and crazy events of Tronc’s last six months, maybe union workarounds have become part of a strategy.

Tronc, not uncharacteristically in its short two-year-life, has turned what may be a fair foray into a small nightmare. A company that accidentally leaks its top hires may earn a little derision, but one that then gags those hires for weeks and keeps its workforce in the dark about them gets more.

Beyond the optics here remains the big question: What actually is Tronc’s transformation strategy? It has stuttered along on buzzwords and dekes for 24 months. Take a look at its Needham presentation, and you see all the buzzwords — targeting, personalization, investment, mobile — of industry change, but you see precious little detail. Maybe there’s more beyond the veil of generality and secrecy — thought we might wonder how much of it is in the head of Ross Levinsohn, who may not be able to return to his role. (Tronc’s woes around workplace harassment grew Thursday evening as HuffPost reported that a second top New York Daily News editor has been accused of wrongful behavior. Tronc surprisingly bought the ailing Daily News in September.)

There’s one sentence from that investor presentation that should concern the newsroom, as well as those who would hope to see a return to well-supported robust local journalism.

In describing its content creation and syndication strategy, Tronc repeats: “The approach allows us to be less dependent on the newsroom transformation as we pursue other growth opportunities; the goal is to integrate over time.”

Today’s most successful news business models tell us that companies must satisfy the hell out of reading-then-subscribing customers. For the most successful transitioning companies, that means investing in the core content and product to satisfy paying readers, rather than investing in more speculative if shinier-to-investors new business lines. Above all, business transformation requires newsroom transformation, as well as transformation of other key Tronc processes, some of which are indeed in their beginning stages.

Without a newsroom fully on board — as we see at the paper’s major role models, The New York Times and The Washington Post — it’s hard to see how the L.A. Times and Tronc turn around a company whose financials are deeply challenged.

As February approaches, we await full-year from financials from Tronc and other public companies. It’s no secret that Tronc will buyout and layoff more newsroom staff soon; the question is how many. Just last week, I detailed that wider sense that Los Angeles’ news institutions are coming apart at the seams.

This week, the Digital First Media-owned Southern California News Group — the only other major publisher of dailies in the entire 10-million-strong Southern California region, from L.A. County to San Diego County — is leaking out details on its cuts. We’d known that a SCNG newsroom workforce that had been 370 as recently as mid-2017 will number no more than 250 when the new cuts are done.

The cuts, say my sources, go to the heart of coverage — the kind of coverage that subscribers pay for.

“Several at L.A. Daily News today, in various news departments,” said one source Thursday. “Apparently, they are getting rid of most sports columnists. The Orange County Register [which Digital First Media bought out of bankruptcy last year to help “save” it] will do Sports, Features, and Photo layoffs now…I’m told February is Metro and March layoffs are for Digital and Design.”

It’s a cut-of-the-month club, a gift that just keeps on giving.

Photo of Los Angeles skyline by Arman Thanvir used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 26, 2018, 12:22 p.m.
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