Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues. The American Prospect is co-publishing this piece.
Los Angeles Times readers who have been unaware of the paper's endless management turmoil and policy changes can always view the damage in its print edition. Thinner news sections, a dwindling number of bylines and the wrap-around advertising that disguises the front-page all hint at the ongoing upheaval at the top.
Front-line reporters who bear the brunt of the turmoil have organized a union drive in response. As the Los Angeles Times Guild organizing committee announced in an October 24, 2017, letter signed by 44 editorial staff, “We wanted to stem the flight of talent and halt the steady erosion of pay and benefits.”
It’s the first time in the famously anti-union paper’s history that editorial staff members have taken such a step—driven, they say, by a management that has undermined both working and journalistic standards. (The Times’ press operators are represented by the Teamsters union.)
Today, more than 350 Los Angeles Times reporters and editorial staff will vote on whether to allow NewsGuild CWA to represent them. About 70 percent of the newsroom signed union authorization cards, organizers say. Voting takes place at the Times’ downtown headquarters and at its Orange County offices, with observers in place; some remote employees will submit mail-in ballots. The National Labor Relations Board will release the results January 19.
“What really kicked this off was, as we’re dealing with this tumult at the executive levels, the reporters are still doing the work,” said Carolina Miranda, who has seen management change at least three times in the three and a half years she has been at the paper.
One pivotal moment came recently when it became public that Michael W. Ferro, the technology entrepreneur and company chairman who changed the Tribune name to Tronc (Tribune online content), flies on a private plane that cost Tronc $4.6 million—$8,500 an hour—in seven months to sublease. The plane is subleased from a Ferro-owned company, Merrick Ventures.
“That tipped wavering [employees] toward the union,” said one L.A. Times journalist who, like most staffers interviewed by Capital & Main, spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to another Times staffer, one incident that roiled editorial staff—and much of the industry—was management’s behavior during a recent stand-off with the Walt Disney Company. Disney refused to provide advance copies or screenings of films to the L.A. Times because of the paper's two-part series about the cozy business relationship between the city of Anaheim and Disneyland that has garnered the theme park more than $1 billion in “subsidies, incentives, rebates and protections from future taxes.” Disney found the stories unfair.
An L.A. Times staffer cited management’s tepid response as a turning point. National critics associations condemned the ban and threatened to disqualify Disney films from awards consideration. D’Vorkin met with Disney for what it called “productive discussions,” although the Times offered no public defense for the reporting that had sparked Disney’s ire.
PART OF THE PAPER and website’s chaos is evidenced in the kinds of cuts and changes in workplace conditions that have become common in newsrooms around the country as publishers grapple with changing technological models and a shifting economic landscape. In Southern California, the LA Weekly’s new owner recently eliminated all but four of 13 editorial staff members; former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano resigned after refusing to cut staff.
“We’re the eyes and ears of the community,” Carolina Miranda said of the pressure to keep reporter staffing levels low. “You need someone writing about the water. You need someone writing about electeds, sitting in interminable City Hall and CalTrans meetings. That’s where the news comes from. It’s important to protect our role in that ecosystem.”
L.A. Times employees describe several other clear turning points in a years-long, accelerating momentum toward unionization. In 2016, the Chicago-based Tribune company, which had acquired the paper in 2000, announced its name change to Tronc, along with its mission as a “content curation and monetization company.”
In August 2017, Tronc fired publisher and editor Davan Maharaj. Newsroom staff hadn’t been that happy about Maharaj’s management style, given his predilection for encumbering and delaying some of the Times’ best reporting. The staff organized against him after “fabulous journalists, one after the other, kept leaving,” one union supporter said.
The organizers had high hopes that a new editor would promote quality journalism. Then Tronc brought in Ross Levinsohn, formerly an interim chief executive at Yahoo, as chief executive publisher, and former Forbes editor Lewis D’Vorkin as editor.
The emphasis, Levinsohn told The New York Times, would not be on investing in reporting staff but to expand the L.A. Times on “all platforms.” New management pushed for budget cuts.
Organizers are looking to create a unified voice to set work standards and formally codify them so Tronc can’t make unilateral changes to employment conditions—such as the recent policy shift that eliminated accrued vacation days. They also hope to stabilize the pay structure with a tiered approach that gradually increases pay for new hires as well as to improve health benefits and parental leave policies.
Union contracts also frequently include grievance processes that protect journalists’ freedom to report and write by assuring that terminations are for just cause rather than “at will” whims.
“We hope it will unify the newsroom behind quality journalism instead of watching one person after the other leave,” said one staffer who signed on to the October 2017 letter. The publications that will survive have invested in maintaining quality, she added, citing The Washington Post and The New York Times. (Editorial staff from both publications are part of the NewsGuild’s 25,000 nationwide members.)
The Los Angeles Times responded to a request for comment about the union drive via email with a statement from L.A. Times CEO and publisher Levinsohn. “For 136 years, the Los Angeles Times has served the community of Los Angeles and the world with dynamic, important and Pulitzer Prize winning journalism. It is the core foundation of our brand. Whether our newsroom unionizes or not, we will remain committed to ensuring the L.A. Times is a leading source for news and information across all media touchpoints.”
Felix Gutierrez, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who writes about media and racial, ethnic, and gender groups, has followed the L.A. Times development for decades as the paper, he said, focused on expanding toward white suburbs and “bypassing other communities. If they had adapted a demographic imperative as aggressively as they grasped the technological, they could be in a different place right now.
“The reporters are closer to what’s happening in the communities than the higher-ups. They should listen to them. I don’t know if they’ll do that without a union.”