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Sept. 23, 2021, 12:57 p.m.
Business Models

The LA Times’ Kevin Merida thinks Los Angeles is “the perfect place to redefine the modern newspaper”

“We don’t have to turn around a whole big ship. We can try things.”

Asked about the differences between The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, Kevin Merida began with the weather.

“I love waking up [in LA] every morning,” Merida, who was named executive editor of the LA Times in May, told Richard Tofel, the former president of ProPublica, in a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival on Thursday. “It’s sunny, it’s beautiful, my mood lifts — the psychology of it!”

While Tofel had asked about the differences in the two papers “besides location,” it is partly location, Merida said, that makes the opportunity at the LA Times exciting. (Merida was The Washington Post’s managing editor before leaving to become editor-in-chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated in 2015.)

I’m gonna first just talk about the location. Where we’re centered. We’ve been doing a series called “The United States of California,” which talks about how California is a state of innovation in so many different ways. It’s where things start.

I was on vacation and met somebody at the same resort. She happened to be running a foundation that was in California and said she thought that there was so much possibility in Los Angeles, that Los Angeles was to the 21st century what New York was to the 20th century, and that it was the place where people were coming, the place the country was headed.

We’re in a great location. If you were going to try to redefine the modern newspaper and said, Where can I do that? Where can I really experiment with what a newspaper is? — You’d say: I got it. The perfect place is Los Angeles.

So many people are coming here and there are so many people who live here of different ethnicities and backgrounds. Technological advances for media, the changing media ecosystem, the streaming wars, entertainment — it’s all centered here. …

We’re in perhaps the most exciting city in the country in arguably the most important state in the country. The LA Times is smaller [than the Post], and in some ways when you are smaller you can be nimbler. You can move faster, you can try things easier. We don’t have to turn around a whole big ship. We can try things. And I think we will experiment aggressively and fearlessly.

Newspaper as straitjacket

Tofel mentioned that, in a conversation between them prior to the one at the conference, Merida had described the concept of a newspaper as a “straitjacket.”

Merida:

I spent 40, 41 years in newspapers and I came in reading The Washington Post as a kid. They’re beautifully curated things. When Jeff Bezos first bought the Post, [he was talking about] the marvel of just the curation — that every day, there’s a hierarchy that human beings put together, a physical newspaper, that has an architecture to it. It’s amazing that it comes out every day.

[But] a lot of the people — including my sons, both of their parents are newspaper people! — do not immediately gravitate [toward it], say, well, let me go and get myself a newspaper subscription!

We have to understand that there’s a generation that didn’t grow up with the paper being dropped on the doorstep, feeling that the newspaper is the way they need to get their information. I’m just talking about the term “newspaper.” We have to account for that everybody did not grow up with that habit, everybody does not think that [to get] “news,” that to be informed, requires them to get a newspaper subscription.

We have to change how people think about a newspaper. We’re here to engage them in all kinds of storytelling — storytelling that happens in the world where they consume it.

People now consume sports in so many different ways — multiple different screens. They have a second-, third-screen experience with it. There are fantasy sports leagues. Entire bars that are targeted for specific fandom around teams. There’s just a whole ecosystem of the way people consume [sports].

We have to recognize that and account for it [for news] … We have to tell people, look, we do a lot more than you think and we’re essential to your lives. We can make it so that what you need and what you want come together and it’s worth it to you to pay for us, the same way you might pay for Netflix or ESPN+.

“Other things to put inside your mind”

The biggest thing he learned as editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, Merida said, was “that there are a lot of ways to reach audiences.” At the helm of The Undefeated, he explained, he was largely starting from scratch and building culture rather than coming into an existing one.

As Los Angeles Magazine reported on Wednesday, when Merida took over at The Undefeated, that publication was “mired in reports of a toxic work environment under original editor in chief Jason Whitlock.” And within five years, Merida was able to help turn things around enough that the site “was scoring speakers like Barack Obama for its events, its journalism was winning industry awards, and it had entered book publishing and music production.” Needless to say, The Undefeated was a different atmosphere from the one at The Washington Post, where he worked for more than 20 years.

There are brilliant people in [The Washington Post’s] newsroom, but most of my life was confined inside that newsroom. And as smart as everybody is inside that newsroom, there are a lot of smart people outside the newsroom, too. You need to have other ways to expand your mind — other things to put inside your mind. […]

How do we create entry points to journalism that are beyond simply what we write — the stories we write and edit and publish digitally and in the newspaper? Is there an entire way to bring people to it through social content creation, just the way that people engage on TikTok and Instagram and Twitch and other platforms? Can we get audiences to look at our work differently?

And not everybody who creates content for the LA Times will want to be employed there, Merida said.

There are opportunities to do original work and to partner with people who may not have a Los Angeles Times badge. They may not want to be employed by the LA Times. But they may be doing something really interesting. They may want to periodically write for us. They may want to produce for us. They may want to do things with us, but not be an LA Times employee. There’s a whole world of creative people out there.

“My early mentors were people who were breaking down the doors and trying to fight for more inclusion”

Merida is the second Black executive editor of the LA Times, but “there’s never been a Latino editor in a city where Latinos outnumber non-Hispanic whites and outnumber Blacks by more than 3 to 1,” Tofel said. “How, in your judgment, has the LA Times been doing serving its Latino audience and covering the Latino community?”

The LA Times currently employees perhaps the largest number of Latino journalists of any daily in the country, Merida said — about 100 in a newsroom of 550.

“Which is not to say that we are where we need to be. We have a Latino population that’s roughly half of the county of Los Angeles. There’s a lot we know we need to do and we’ll continue to be aggressive about that. I’m glad we have a lot of tremendous Latino journalists bc they can help me. They can help me figure out what to do to keep pushing forward. It’s central to who we are at the LA Times, and where we need to go, and what we need to become.

The representation has always been important to me. Inclusion, empowerment, visibility, they always have been core to me. My early mentors were people who were breaking down the doors and trying to fight for more inclusion. People like Bob Maynard and Nancy Hicks Maynard and others who started the Maynard Institute and, before that, the Summer Program for Minority Journalists, which I’m a graduate of.

Part of my orientation in this profession has been to push for more inclusion and representation. We need more Latino journalists in the ranks of management and throughout the entire place. That is certainly on my mind, coming in and working at the Los Angeles Times.”

Kevin Merida and Richard Tofel’s conversation at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival is available online if you buy a festival ticket.

Photo of Los Angeles at sunset by Cedric Letsch on Unsplash.

POSTED     Sept. 23, 2021, 12:57 p.m.
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