Local journalism is my passion. It’s an interest and talent I developed working at the Toronto Star in the early 80s when that newspaper unquestionably ranked among the best dailies in North America, if not the world. Torontonians, particularly the city’s slew of immigrants, valued the publication. In those days, the Star’s circulation exceeded the combined circulations of its two rivals.
The Star’s journalism and business success were predicated on five words: “What’s It Mean to Metro?” Metro referred to Metropolitan Toronto, and every story was required to have relevance to the city’s residents. Legend had it there was once a deadly plane crash in India, and the Star’s headline was something to the effect, “Cousin of Metro Family Among Victims of India Plane Crash.”
There were many in the Star’s newsroom who were frustrated by the publication’s provincialism, but no one would ever have dared to sign an open letter to the publisher’s chosen editors advising them how better to run the newspaper. Humility was something else I learned at the Star, which when I worked there was hugely profitable and far-and-away paid the best wages in Canadian journalism. A surefire career derailer was for a reporter to mistakenly believe they were somehow bigger and more important than the publication. The Star was overseen by experienced editors who paid their dues, and reporters worked for their editors, not the other way around as is common in today’s North American newsrooms.
The Los Angeles Times in in the early 80s was the Toronto Star on steroids. Los Angeles was a considerably bigger city, and the well-managed, locally owned publication had the vision to expand into fast growing Orange County, where it had a sizeable bureau and eventually a separate edition. The Times also had bureaus around the world, and it’s Washington outpost was the biggest in town. Reporters flew first class on extended trips.
What fueled the Times’ success, and funded the luxury travel of its reporters, was the publication’s formidable local coverage. The Times was a “cops and courts” newspaper, meaning that it devoted considerable resources and space covering crimes and trials. The Times spoke with a distinct Los Angeles voice, and its readers were loyal. My late Uncle Max, a prominent Los Angeles architect, raved about the publication.
The Times fell on hard times when it was sold to a Chicago-based conglomerate, which installed two hot shot editors from Baltimore and New York who were bent on making the L.A. Times the New York Times of the west. The carpetbaggers slashed local coverage, radically downsized the Orange County bureau, and used the proceeds to fund costly enterprise journalism projects that garnered oodles of Pulitzer Prizes. When the East Coast editors stepped down, the L.A. Times was down 100,000 subscribers and no longer hugely profitable.
The Times was eventually acquired by a billionaire biotech investor named Patrick Soon-Shiong, who recruited Norman Pearlstine, a veteran business editor with no experience running a local newspaper, let alone a troubled one. Three years ago, I posted this commentary headlined, “Why the L.A. Times Deserves to Fail,” lamenting the publication’s sophomoric wokester focus under Pearlstine’s leadership and its irrelevance to Angelenos. Notably, Pearlstine never moved to L.A. or put down roots in the city, but rather commuted from New York.
Soon-Shiong a few months later replaced Pearlstine with Kevin Merida, a former Washington Post editor who went on to oversee an ESPN digital culture site. The media hailed Merida’s hiring as a coup, and he installed Sara Yasin as a managing editor.
Yasin was a ballyhooed editor from New York-based BuzzFeed, an online service that will be best remembered for the accompanying exploding watermelon video, publishing the contents of a discredited dossier alleging Donald Trump’s links to Vladimir Putin, and forcing special prosecutor Robert Mueller to break his silence and issue a news release denying an explosive BuzzFeed “scoop” that Trump directed his personal attorney to lie to Congress.
Merida also promoted Shani Hilton, another BuzzFeed alumnus, to managing editor for new initiatives.
Though I didn’t think it possible, Merida and his former BuzzFeed colleagues plunged the Times to even lower depths, reducing the publication to a glorified college newspaper. Merida’s defenders will tell you the Times was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes under his watch, but as I’ve previously argued, Pulitzers favor woke stories and no longer carry the prestige they once did. BuzzFeed also was awarded a Pulitzer, and the publication has since disbanded its news division.
In any case, Merida & Co. weren’t looking to quality journalism to grow the Times’ business and reach. Instead, they launched such audience engagement initiatives as 404, “a team of creators, artists, filmmakers, writers and makers of all kinds (including a puppeteer)” whose mandate was “creating things like puppet-hosted TikTok shows, short-form documentaries, Instagram-first features on L.A.’s thriving creative community … and yes, even memes.” They also were assigned “to work hand in hand with the culture makers in the city to amplify, highlight and share L.A.’s vast and varied stories.”
Here’s a photo of some of the innovators of a modern-day Pulitzer Prize winning organization.
Like Pearlstine, Merida also apparently viewed Los Angeles as a temporary journalism pit stop, an opportunity to pocket a few millions of dollars. Los Angeles magazine in 2022 revealed that Merida’s annual compensation ranged from $700,000 to $1 million, and that he lived in a $6 million guesthouse owned by Soon-Shiong in celebrity-studded Brentwood.
“The number of people who know about this arrangement is very few,” an unidentified source with direct knowledge of Merida’s living arrangement told the magazine. “I’m stunned Kevin is still there. If he cares about L.A., why hasn’t he bought or rented a home?”
Los Angeles magazine reported that more than a year after Merida joined the Times, some of the publication’s top editors had yet to meet him. It’s been reported that since the pandemic, Times reporters work from home, not the publication’s newsroom in suburban lily white El Segundo, which I liken to Bayonne in Northern New Jersey.
It’s no surprise the L.A. Times is financially hemorrhaging, reportedly losing $40 million a year. Merida last June was forced to cut 73 staff positions, a move he said made him feel “awful,” but not so bad to take a voluntary pay cut and save a few jobs. This week the Times slashed an additional 115 jobs, representing 20% of the publication’s editorial workforce.
Merida resigned from the Times rather than personally implementing the cuts, as have former BuzzFeeders Shani Hilton and Sara Yasin (You know what they say about who’s first to flee a sinking ship). Merida and Soon-Shiong reportedly never bonded, and their discord came to a head over the rabid anti-Israel views of dozens on the Times’ editorial staff.
It’s been reported that on November 9, more than 36 L.A. Times editorial staffers were among the 1,200 journalists around the world who signed an open letter calling on newsrooms to use words like “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” when reporting on Israel’s Gaza activities. Some senior Times editors were reportedly incensed that the letter made no mention of Hamas’ October 7 massacre of more than 1,200 Israelis and protested the signatories’ public display of extreme bias.
Much is made that Merida previously worked at the Washington Post, but that publication is coasting on a reputation that was achieved long before Merida worked there. Among the editors who established the Post’s formerly vaunted reputation was Len Downie, who famously refused to vote to avoid even the appearance of bias.
“We work hard here to not be biased and not appear to be biased,” Downie explained in a 1998 online chat. “All our reporters and editors, for example, are prohibited from engaging in any political or interest group activity except voting. And I even refuse to vote so that I never make up my mind which party, candidate or ideology should be in power.”
Merida isn’t committed to the optics of objectivity. When CAMERA, a media watchdog group on Middle East reporting, publicly called out the Los Angeles Times for alleged bias toward Hamas in its coverage of the Gaza conflict, as well as social media re-posts by Sara Yasin which the group alleged made clear that “her sympathies lie with Hamas,” the Times stood by Yasin, whose bio says she is a Palestinian American raised on a steady diet of hummus and fried chicken.
As an example of Yasin’s point of view, she retweeted a post on X which included comments from UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese, stating: “Israel has already carried out mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under the fog of war … Again, in the name of self-defense, Israel is seeking to justify what would amount to ethnic cleansing.”
Tellingly, on Oct. 9, two days after Hamas’ massacre, the Times illustrated its front-page report on the assault with a photo of an injured Palestinian child. The publication also ran a story attempting to debunk reports that Hamas fighters had committed rape and other atrocities.
Merida’s response to his senior editors’ complaints about reporters signing a letter revealing their biases was to issue a 90-day moratorium preventing those who signed the letter from writing about the Gaza conflict, as if a three-month pause would suddenly make them fair and objective. Regardless, Soon-Shiong and Nika, his silver spoon born daughter, objected to Merida’s 90-day ban, possibly leading to Merida’s departure.
Los Angeles is one of America’s most vibrant Jewish cities with more than 700,000 Jews in the region, many no doubt subscribers to the Times. Nika, 30, has publicly telegraphed her pro-Palestinian views, pinning a picture of the Palestinian flag on her X account, posting instructions to journalists to refer to Israel as an “apartheid state,” and follows and frequently “likes” stories posted by Quds News Network, a news agency some believe is affiliated with Hamas. Politico last year published a story about how young Nika has publicly chastised reporters at her daddy’s newspaper for stories not to her liking and has influenced its political endorsements.
It’s a measure of the legacy media’s self-absorption that in all the reporting mourning the layoffs at the Times, not one publication referred to Soon-Shiong’s finances. Matt Krantz, my go-to reporter for insights on the public markets, reported that the value of Soon-Shiong’s holdings in his ImmunityBio company have declined to $1 billion from $11.3 billion on March 10, 2021.
Soon-Shiong paid $500,000 to acquire the Times six years ago, and claimed he’s invested $1 billion more. Soon-Shiong’s pockets aren’t so deep anymore and under his ownership, I’m doubtful the L.A. Times can survive.
Soon-Shiong and his daughter Nika might want to visit Qatar and seek some funding to establish the L.A. Times as the Al Jazeera of the West Coast. I expect the Qatar government, which funds Hamas and Al Jazeera, would welcome the father and daughter duo with open arms.
As for Merida and his former BuzzFeeders Sara Yasin and Shani Hilton, don’t worry about them. They will remain superstars among the legacy media and will have even better jobs in short order.
In American journalism, top editors fail upwards.
Addendum: An hour after I posted this commentary, the New York Times reported this story that Merida and Soon-Shiong clashed over an article a Los Angeles Times reporter was researching relating to a lawsuit a woman filed against a prominent surgeon and philanthropist and a friend of Soon-Shiong. The woman alleged the surgeon’s dog bit her, but the surgeon alleged he was extorted. The Times said Soon-Shiong urged Merida to abandon the story, and that Merida was prepared to resign if Soon-Shiong tried to stop publication of the story.
It’s inappropriate for publishers to interfere with their editors to stop publication of a story, particularly one involving their friends. That said, a dog bites person story isn’t considered news at most major market newspapers, and responsible publications are careful not to take sides in a lawsuit.
Moreover, a scam I read about on my neighborhood site was about someone at the local Trader Joe’s falsely alleging he was bitten by a dog waiting outside for an owner to return and demanding payment not to report the incident to the authorities, which could result in the dog being put down.
The New York Times story, as published, reflects more poorly on the publication and Merida than it does on Soon-Shiong. If I were paying an editor more than $700,000 a year and allowing him to live in my $6 million guesthouse, it would be my expectation that the editor pursue bigger stories than one about a dog allegedly biting a person, even if the dog was owned by the most prominent person in town.