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True Genius: How to go from “the future of journalism” to a fire sale in a few short years
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June 25, 2020, 1:04 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Sarah Scire   |   June 25, 2020

It’s been a week of reckoning at The Los Angeles Times.

On Monday, the newsroom’s Black Caucus sent an open letter to owner Patrick Soon-Shiong that cited “racist treatment, marginalization and neglect in [the] newsroom over the last three decades.” The next day, current and former Black reporters used the hashtag #BlackatLAT to share their experiences, and the paper’s arts and entertainment staff wrote their own letter — to deputy managing editor Julia Turner — expressing frustration that every open editing position in the past 18 months had been filled by a white person.

Then, on Wednesday, staff gathered for a four-and-a-half-hour town hall meeting over Zoom. Candid coverage of the meeting — and the representation and coverage issues that necessitated the lengthy conversation — appeared in the newspaper’s own pages. (The article follows two detailed pieces on the newsroom’s discontent by NPR’s David Folkenflik, among other coverage.)

One oft-cited frustration at the town hall meeting was that the newspaper, which billionaire Soon-Shiong purchased for $500 million in 2018, squandered a “golden opportunity” to bring on diverse talent. Although a hiring freeze and pay cuts prompted by COVID-19 and its economic impact are currently in effect at the LA Times, the paper “went on an unprecedented hiring spree, bringing on 110 additional journalists” a couple years back, according to the article by Meg James and Daniel Hernandez.

And yet:

Today, The Times newsroom employs 502 journalists, but it is 61% white, even though Los Angeles County’s population is 26% white, according to 2018 census information. Latinos represent 13% of the newsroom in a county where Latinos make up nearly half of the population. The paper’s composition of Asian American journalists mirrors the county’s population at nearly 15%. The paper has just 26 Black journalists — 5.2% of its staff — while nearly 8% of county residents are Black.

Staff writer Esmeralda Bermudez spoke up about the missed opportunity and criticized the hiring practices of top editors, starting with executive editor Norman Pearlstine. “We all saw the river of white people coming into your office,” Bermudez said.

Soon-Shiong, who was born in South Africa to Chinese immigrant parents, backed Pearlstine (“I want Norm to stay with us as long as he wants”) and told staff that The Los Angeles Times has the most diverse staff of any major newsroom. According to James and Hernandez’s piece, the New York Times newsroom is 68% white, the Washington Post editorial team is 71.2% white and the Wall Street Journal newsroom staff is 79.4% white. (The latest diversity report from The New York Times reported that its news and opinion sections, combined, are 71 percent white.)

Still, editors took turns apologizing to the staff for missteps and failing to fix, as one example, that the newspaper’s largest section, Metro, has just one black reporter.

The Los Angeles Times revealed Angel Jennings had repeatedly been denied a pay raise, which Jennings described as painful, given her contributions.

For 18 months, Jennings pleaded in vain with editors for a raise. City Editor Hector Becerra went to bat for her, saying that boosting her compensation was the “the right thing …[and] also the smart thing.” But Pearlstine and other high-level editors declined, saying the paper was in the midst of negotiating its first collective bargaining agreement …

During this time, Jennings’ coverage of the shooting death of rapper Nipsey Hussle attracted huge audiences that don’t normally read the L.A. Times. Her story was the third-most-read on The Times’ website in 2019. Among the stories that had the best engagement — the time that readers spent reading a story — her article was No. 1. (Jennings was given a bonus for her coverage, managers said.)

Some changes are already underway. The Los Angeles Times has announced they will hire a senior editor to oversee recruiting, career development, retention efforts as well as the MetPro fellowship designed to boost the newsroom’s diversity. (This position was one of the demands made by the Black Caucus.) A newly convened diversity committee and unconscious bias training for staffers were also announced.

The paper, which promised to add additional Black reporters including alongside Jennings in the Metro section, will publish an annual diversity report to track its progress toward a more representative newsroom.

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