Life after tronc: Norman Pearlstine’s plans for the LA Times

Norman Pearlstine (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

On the day I interviewed Norman Pearlstine at the Los Angeles Times, tourists kept wandering into the cool, marbled lobby to inquire about taking the building tour. The security guard politely told them—on four separate occasions in a span of 30 minutes—that there are no more guided walks through the imposing Art Deco building that has served as the newspaper’s home since 1935. The last tour was given on June 15. The tourists wandered around the lobby’s massive globe to peer at busts of the paper’s founding family, the Chandlers, and snap photos before moving on.

Upstairs there are empty cardboard boxes stacked in the newsroom, as reporters, editors, and staff prepare to leave this building and, they hope, a tumultuous 19-year period wherein owners in Chicago dramatically cut the paper’s staff and ambitions. The paper’s new local owner, billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, pledges to breathe new life into the paper and plans to relocate the LA Times next month to a new headquarters 20 miles southwest, in El Segundo, an airport-adjacent beach city. On June 18, the paper’s sale to Soon-Shiong became final—a shift so recent that former Editor in Chief Jim Kirk, who served under tronc (or Tribune, in redux), could still be spotted strolling the halls when I visited to interview Pearlstine on Monday.

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Pearlstine, the LA Times’s new executive editor, sat down with CJR on his fourth official day on the job to discuss his vision for the newspaper. At the moment, Pearlstine—who has held leadership positions at the Wall Street Journal and Time Inc., among other outlets—says he is laying plans for a fresh generation of leadership at the Times, determining shifts in coverage, and developing a working relationship with the paper’s new union.

Throughout the interview Pearlstine spoke with the guarded curiosity of a reporter who has just begun digging into what promises to be a really good story. He won’t overpromise, but doesn’t believe he’ll under-deliver—the goods are there. Pearlstine is in an exploratory phase and faces formidable challenges such as restaffing a Washington bureau that many veteran journalists fled under threat of closure from previous owners, in a time when covering the president presents unprecedented challenges. “Those are serious losses and I wish that we hadn’t lost them, but I’ve been really encouraged by the people who’ve reached out to me just in the last week since the announcement. And if we can deliver on some of those, we’ll be fine,” Pearlstine says.

In Los Angeles, Pearlstine sees fresh opportunity to beef up investigative coverage—not only in coverage of business and the entertainment industry—but in unlikely fodder like food and arts, and sports, especially as the city prepares to host the Olympics, the World Cup, and serve as home to a bevy of pro and college sports teams. The freshly unionized newsroom was openly gleeful to see former owners tronc go, but Pearlstine doesn’t disparage past leadership. Necessary changes will take some time, he says, before promising to move as fast as possible. Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.

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Let’s start with an elephant in the room. You retired last year from Time, Inc after serving as chief content officer. [New York Times Executive Editor] Dean Baquet is 61. [Washington Post Executive Editor] Marty Baron is 63. What went into the decision of coming out of retirement at age 75 to run a sort-of-struggling newspaper?

I was given an opportunity to do it and I consider myself fortunate to have that opportunity. I spent a lot of my life doing things that, it turns out, are somewhat relevant to being here. What began as a consulting relationship with Dr. Soon-Shiong, to think about a model for editorial—well, the more we got into it the more we thought that there was benefit in trying to figure out the place first before we figured out the next generation of leadership. When he asked me if I’d be willing to do it, I was delighted to have the opportunity.

 

Dr. Soon-Shiong is openly ambitious. He wants to compete with The Washington Post and The New York Times. What do you believe you can accomplish within your first year in this role? What are your goals?

I might put some conditions on that question of competing. There are certain stories that we definitely need to be competitive on. The goal is for us to be perceived as a world-class journalistic enterprise, doing what makes the most sense for our current audience and the audience we aspire to serve. In some cases, that will make us directly competitive with other big national and international publications, and in other places I think we want to call our shots to really set an agenda in the places where we’re particularly well-equipped to do it.

You need some sense of how quickly you can move, but I have not wanted to be tied into a specific date in terms of accomplishments. At this point, I’m still trying to figure out what are the assets currently in place and how are they being deployed. It’s a very talented staff. Frankly, more talented than I had thought from the outside looking in, solely because—I mean most of the headlines about the Los Angeles Times in recent years have been about turmoil, about cost cutting, about attrition and departures. In fact, it has an amazing alumni society. But the big surprise to me is just how much talent there is in the building.

The first [priority] is to assess the talent that is here and make sure that we’re fully utilizing and taking advantage of some really smart people who may not have felt that they were either being listened to or that they had opportunity to take on more authority or responsibility. A second is to try to figure out what we need to do to fill in the holes to buttress that, given the ambitions that Dr. Soon-Shiong has talked about. And then, certainly over a period of time, we have to begin thinking about a next generation of leadership. As much as I would love to be the person responsible for a 10-year turnaround at the Los Angeles Times, I don’t think it’s probably good for the organization and probably not good for me either to think in those terms.

It’s no surprise that—really going back to last August when so many people at the top of the masthead were let go—a lot of people put their resumes out on the street and some of them have resulted in offers, some people have left. Some people, I think, were on the verge of leaving and they are at least willing to give us a chance to prove that we’re not just all talk. They’ve had a lot of talk over the years so it’s understandable if people were skeptical but in that first year certainly there’s some very important vacancies that we need to fill. Beyond that, I think there’s some very important coverage areas that we have to address.

Part of it is: What do we do just to get the current operation running better? And then: What are the new things that you want to do where we have a lot of catch up?

 

Media faces a challenge in covering the president now, and you had the winning quote on Reliable Sources recently when you said “Trump’s cocaine is media.” I’d love you to expand on that a little bit more.

Well, he’s a very interesting and complicated guy, I’ve known him a long time. He’s very much an instinctual creature. When I said that I think media is his cocaine, I just mean that he loves press attention. He may love railing against the press; he’s railed against the press a lot, long before this. I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten with that gold leaf on it and that big signature.

He’ll get mad and he’ll ban CNN from something or The New York Times, but he’s given Maggie Haberman some good interviews for all the complaints about the New York Times. Were I more delicate, I guess I would have said it’s a symbiotic relationship or something like that. But, yeah, it is his cocaine.

 

He may love railing against the press; he’s railed against the press a lot, long before this. I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten with that gold leaf on it and that big signature.

 

If you go back and read The Art of the Deal, right after the preface, that first chapter he talks about truthful hyperbole, and about the fact that he thinks it’s really important to say whatever comes into his head that he thinks advantages him. I think engagement is really essential and you have to you have to keep trying to cover him and his administration as best you can, on your terms when you can. Sometimes you’ll have to do it on his terms. We don’t have the luxury of saying we’re going to skip this story.

To the degree you can, especially with a limited staff, you want to dig into the issues of substance where there are very real changes taking place that show the power of the chief executive and where it can be implemented. As important as those stories are, understanding the 32 lawsuits that the state of California has brought against the EPA is pretty important for our audience as well. We need to make sure that we’re understanding some of those very real changes that are taking place.

 

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The culture war that is being waged right now seems to be waged against California in many ways.

Well, and New York as well.

 

Yes, and New York, the so-called coastal elite—

Some states ran very heavily against him—

 

Sure, but there’s a taco truck on my corner here in LA. I think there’s a particularly hard slant against any place that has a lot of immigrants, and we are a majority-minority city. What will the Times do to cover communities that might feel antagonized or threatened right now?

Well, those are communities we need to cover in any case. Given the immigrant population of this state, we need to be all over stories involving immigration. And we need to understand, if you will, the ways in which these immigrant populations do and don’t want coverage of the countries where many people were born or where their parents were born. So, the Mexican elections are a very big story here in [their] own right. Mexico versus Korea in a World Cup game at 8am may be peculiar to us in terms of its importance, but I think given the nature of this population—and I would include in that the fact that there’s still a significant number of voters who would consider themselves part of the Trump base in one way or another—that it’s dangerous to generalize about the state.

 

Fair enough. I’d like to look inward at the Times newsroom for a second. I think a question that your staffers would want me to ask is: After years of cuts and layoffs, can you offer any assurance that layoffs are on hold, at least for the time being?

There may be individual cases where you’re taking a look and saying, “Well do we need as much emphasis here and can we emphasize more there?” Those kinds of things go on in the everyday running of any newsroom. I have not heard of any desire for any cuts or further layoffs. I don’t want to ever say “never” on something like this because I don’t know. I mean, I’ve only been in the office really four days so it’s a little hard to give you definitive answers on these things. We are doing a careful analysis of what everybody on staff is doing and whether this is the best use of our resources.

I have not been involved in and I haven’t really had a chance to figure out the implications of a large part of the workforce now being represented by a union. We have to understand just what does it mean, before you have a contract, in terms of what you can and can’t do. That’s not to suggest any flags there, it’s just that I don’t know.

 

When you were at the Wall Street Journal, the Journal was a union shop, right?

It was, but its name—it was called the Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees—may give you some notion of how strong the union was. I was the union representative in Detroit when I was at an early stage in my career. I remember writing the union bylaws at one point but that was a long time ago. I’ve been in management too many decades to assert any claims there, but yes, there was a union, and they subsequently became part of CWA, I think, as the guild is now.

 

And then Time, Inc. had a union as well. So you’re used to negotiating and collective bargaining, as management.

Yes, absolutely.

 

I ask because the union really seemed to turn off tronc.

I don’t want to get into a discussion of the specifics just because I haven’t been involved, but the union vote was an expression of very deep concerns on the part of a lot of people who work here. And whether there was a union or not, you have to take those concerns seriously. I’ve met—not in a formal session, but informally—with a number of people who have been identified with the union movement, and I think that there is a lot of sincerity in their concerns and we should be prepared to take them seriously.

I don’t consider the existence of a union itself as any bar to having good relations with the people who work here.

 

The union vote was an expression of very deep concerns on the part of a lot of people who work here. And whether there was a union or not, you have to take those concerns seriously.

 

It seems to be a very optimistic time for the paper. How do you plan to keep that good will going and turn the page?

I can’t stress enough the value of having the opportunity to listen to people and to try to get some bottom-up thinking in terms of what we’re doing. It is terrific to have an owner for whom a diverse workforce and a diverse workplace is important. It’s fabulous to have an owner who despite his own personal success still views himself as kind of an underdog who is willing to confront the establishment, whether it’s in medicine or in anyplace else. And who’s a great listener. I’ve learned a lot from him in the period I’ve spent with him. So I think it’s especially important, given the tumult of the last few years, that we will listen carefully and then try to respond to the best ideas that we hear.

I think there’s also a need to recognize that a lot of the difficulties here are difficulties that our entire industry has gone through and that I think Pat is right to want to run it as a business. But we then have to acknowledge that it’s a tough business. We’re not the only ones who’ve gone through huge staff reductions. They might have been handled better, but the disruption in our industry is something you know you [at CJR] have devoted whole issues to. And we’re as much a part of that as anybody else. But sometimes you just need a little time to figure things out.

 

Journalists are an impatient bunch.

Hey! But also, the extraordinary thing has been how many people have stuck it out, have hung in with no real rational expectation something like this would happen. And I’m grateful they have.

I mean, I tried to talk [award-winning columnist] Steve Lopez out of coming here, and gave him all the good reasons why he shouldn’t be here, and I’m so glad he is. I had hired him to Time out of the [Philadelphia] Inquirer. He was working for me when my old friend John Carroll stole him from me. And I was trying to tell Steve why he shouldn’t come to LA and why it was a terrible place for him to try to write his column. Now I’m glad he’s here.

 

International news is one of Dr. Soon-Shiong’s interests. The Times currently has bureaus in Johannesburg, Mexico City, Mumbai and Beijing. This morning’s World section had reports from Beirut, Jerusalem and Istanbul, but everyone is listed as a “special correspondent.” So you’re getting original reporting freelance, much of it very excellent. But is there anything that you want to do to try and focus international coverage more, or to staff some of these people?

I think there are certain places where we might want to put more emphasis, and I haven’t worked that out completely. But given our prominence as part of the Pacific Rim, with as big a Korean American population as we have and with all the stories emanating now, you know, should you have somebody in Seoul? You know, Barbara Demick is as smart about Korea as anybody but she’s in New York right now. You can look at the whole Asian region and, with very large populations here from the Philippines, from Vietnam, from South Asia, you could imagine having someone there.

The Russia story is an important one, and right now we don’t have anyone in London or on the continent. And if we don’t replace the person who just left Johannesburg for Beijing, then no one in Africa. If you have to set priorities, it’s hard to say where you go. But I think that Asia and Latin America remain critically important.

We have some national beats that we ought to be looking hard at, as well. Given how important the immigration story is, we’ve got a reporter in Houston but no one between Houston and Los Angeles. Do you need Phoenix? We aspire to cover California and the West Coast. We have no one in Seattle right now, and we’re not as strong in Northern California as you’d expect. I say this without having any real sense of how quickly and how broadly we’re going to be hiring, because I think until we figure out what we’ve got, that’s tough to say. For instance the San Diego Union-Tribune has a very strong reporter based in Tijuana. Can we make more use of her work when we’re talking about immigration? That’s a very real question to ask. And are there other examples like that?

 

The gender story became very big in the past year, not only through the lens of entertainment coverage with Harvey Weinstein, but also in terms of coverage decisions. The New York Times hired a gender editor for the first time last year. And The Washington Post has relaunched the Lily, US women’s first newspaper. Do you think that there is an opportunity there for doing more coverage for and of women?

Well, certainly the story is extraordinary. And so then the question is how do you best cover it. I think it can lead a way to coverage that you otherwise might not get, and it probably adds to a voice in the newsroom that pushes back against intrinsic bias on the part of many of us. That sort of keeps you straight. But I guess I’d want to be satisfied that that’s the only way we can get the coverage.

And compared to what? I’ve been asking people to give me their list of if they had their druthers, you know, what they would add and [laughs] it’s a pretty formidable list. I don’t want to in any way suggest that this is unimportant, it’s just really a question of what’s the best way for this organization.

 

Fair enough. Here’s another question. You guys have this big move to the west side. In LA, the west side tends to be whiter, wealthier—

Correct.

 

And certainly a good part of your readership. But I think the East Side and other neighborhoods have long complained that they don’t get very good coverage, that they deserve more, particularly and more broadly Latino and black communities. How do you maintain a presence?

Well, first of all, we are keeping a presence downtown. We will have an office with several dozen seats in it, and I would expect we’d probably have a pretty senior editor here responsible for it. Secondly, without taking away from the importance of physical location of where your desk is, it’s more important to talk about where your reporters are. We have a few people who are doing some extraordinary work, [such as] Esmeralda Bermudez’s piece last week about bringing up a trilingual child.

 

That was fantastic.

It was really quite a terrific piece that just said a whole lot about the world that she lives in. You know, Hector Becerra, who is the city editor, his father came here in the trunk of a car. He grew up in Boyle Heights and he is a mentor to a number of young reporters on the Metro desk, for whom this is a really important story. And I think that the difficulty with Los Angeles is just that it’s just such a complicated [place]. I mean, it’s a complicated government structure with a city government and a county government and so the city police get a tremendous amount of coverage, and the sheriffs office much less. Yet when you look at where police brutality cases have been over the last couple decades, you know, it would argue that the sheriff’s office probably ought to get more coverage than the LAPD.

It’s not just East LA that complains. When Marty Baron ran the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, that had 200 reporters. I don’t know what we have now; it’s probably about five or something. There were zone editions that I remember from the Valley, from the west side, from Torrance, Carson, Long Beach. There was a San Diego edition that was never a great commercial success but that was part of the ambition of the place. I think that how you cover these local communities, especially in an age where increasingly the product is going to be a digital one, is interesting. How do you keep your brand on mobile? How do you create an app that that makes you feel like you’re part of this community if you’re living in Echo Park or in Highland Park or something? These are issues that go beyond where the newsroom is.

I do know that there’s some tremendous upside in better local coverage if we figure out how to do it. I mean, you look at Hearst’s record over the last seven years of increased profits and revenues from their newspapers and you know that there are things you can do locally that haven’t been done.

 

Disney coverage has been a subject of controversy, with former editor Lewis D’Vorkin somewhat infamously coming to blows with the newsroom on it.

I wasn’t here at the time, and I’ve never had a conversation with anyone at Disney about anything, so I don’t want to prejudge anything. I think on the basis of what I read, it looked like very solid coverage to me. Now, did we do everything we could have done to try to get their cooperation on a piece like that? I have no idea. Maybe this is just what happens when you write a tough piece. I haven’t dug into it—I haven’t taken 60 seconds to go backward just because there’s so much stuff ahead that I’m looking at. But I would hope that you could do tough aggressive skeptical coverage of your largest institutions with a level of mutual respect—where even if they hate a piece, you continue to be talking to each other. And if that doesn’t work, you have to at least ask the question whether it’s them or it’s you.

Any last things to add about your ambitions for this paper?

At the risk of being too aggressive in my flattery of the owner, what excited me and made me want to come on board was an understanding of the depth of his commitment to wanting to make this just a great paper and to invest resources in ways that make that possible.

Whenever somebody comes to a field like media from another place, you always want to make sure they fully understand what they’ve gotten involved in. His ability to both operate at 50,000 feet and then, somewhat annoyingly, to be very granular in his sort of deconstruction of everything from staffing to beats and so forth has just been remarkable.

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Correction: A previous version mis-transcribed Steve Lopez’s previous workplace, the Philadelphia Inquirer as “Enquirer.”

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Shaya Tayefe Mohajer teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and works as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for TakePart.com and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.