The Media Today

Kevin Merida takes the top job at the LA Times

May 4, 2021

Yesterday, after months of speculation, the LA Times appointed its next executive editor. The paper has given the job to Kevin Merida, the editor in chief of The Undefeated, an arm of ESPN that reports on the intersection of sports, race, and culture; prior to working there, he spent twenty-two years at the Washington Post, including as a managing editor, and also worked as a reporter at the Dallas Morning News and Milwaukee Journal. Merida, who is Black, will be just the third top editor of color in the history of the LA Times; his hiring follows a public promise that Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner, made last year to diversify the paper’s ranks. Merida will be tasked with growing the paper’s digital-subscriber base, which currently lags those of bigger rivals, as well as its own goals. “I see nothing but opportunity,” he told Meg James, an LA Times reporter. “I think this can be the most innovative media company in the country.”

Merida, who is sixty-four years old, is respected across the media industry, and the reaction to his appointment was broadly positive. Dean Baquet, a former LA Times executive editor who now holds the same post at the New York Times, called Merida a “really good choice.” Colleagues from Merida’s days at the Post—including Dan Balz, Philip Rucker, and Wesley Lowery, who has since left that paper and sharply criticized its overall leadership—were similarly effusive; Michelle Ye Hee Lee, a Post reporter who is also president of the Asian American Journalists Association, hailed Merida’s “deep dedication” to media diversity. “Kevin is what I call a journalist’s journalist,” Jemele Hill, who worked with Merida at ESPN, then left the network after it censured her for making political statements, told the Daily Beast. “There was a certain relatability there that I hadn’t had with a lot of people in a supervisory position at ESPN.” Some of Merida’s former colleagues will now be his colleagues again; Kimbriell Kelly, a former Post reporter who is now Washington bureau chief at the LA Times, described Merida as a “friend and mentor,” and called him “not just an excellent choice for this newspaper, but for our industry.” Other LA Times staffers also seemed optimistic about the appointment. The paper’s union said in a statement that it looks forward to hearing Merida’s vision “for the continued restoration of the Times.” It added, “There is work to be done. We’re ready to partner with our new editor to get it done together.”

From the Existential Issue: The revelatory art of Minerva Cuevas

The restoration began in 2018, when Soon-Shiong and his wife, Michele, bought the LA Times from Tribune Publishing—then known, indelibly, as TRONC—under whose ownership the paper had withered. To steady the ship, Soon-Shiong appointed Norm Pearlstine, an industry veteran, as executive editor. Pearlstine oversaw an expansion of the newsroom, a move to new offices, and a trio of Pulitzer wins—but the sailing has not always been smooth. Last summer, Laura Wagner and Maxwell Strachan reported for Vice on frustration, among some staffers, with Pearlstine’s approach, including his handling of the abrupt “retirement,” in 2019, of Colin Crawford, a deputy managing editor who was the subject of a staff complaint about inappropriate and bullying behavior. (Crawford has denied wrongdoing, and said that he retired on his terms.) Crawford’s wasn’t the only high-profile recent departure from the paper. Last year, Peter Meehan, the food editor, resigned, also following allegations of bullying, and Arash Markazi left his job as a sports columnist amid concerns around plagiarism and his coziness with corporations and publicists. In September, James and an LA Times colleague, Daniel Hernandez, published their own story on “a summer of turmoil and scandals” internally.

Race has been central to the turmoil. After taking the reins, Pearlstine diversified the paper’s leadership ranks—but, despite a hiring spree across the company, the percentage of staffers identifying as people of color rose by only five percent through last summer, according to an internal diversity report obtained by Vice. In June and July, Black and Latino staffers formed caucuses under the paper’s union, and wrote open letters demanding, among other things, that management build a newsroom reflective of the demographics of LA County, ensure internal talent pipelines, and apologize for past “tone-deaf” coverage of communities of color. In September, the paper’s editorial board met the latter demand, apologizing for the paper’s “history of racism”—reflecting “at best a blind spot, at worst an outright hostility, for the city’s nonwhite population”—as part of a broader package on the paper’s “reckoning with racism” that also included history columns and Soon-Shiong’s diversity pledge. Then, in November, the LA Times and Tribune, its former owner, agreed to pay three million dollars to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by women and employees of color who alleged that they were underpaid compared to white male colleagues. (In this instance, neither the Times nor Tribune admitted any fault.)

There has been recent turmoil, too, on the business side. In March, The Wrap reported that the LA Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, which Soon-Shiong also owns as part of the same parent company, lost more than fifty million dollars in revenue last year as ad sales collapsed amid the ravages of the pandemic, a figure that Soon-Shiong subsequently confirmed in an interview with CNN; around the same time, the paper said that it had taken a ten-million-dollar loan—the maximum available amount—under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, to shore up payroll and benefits. (The paper hadn’t qualified for a loan under the first PPP tranche, last spring, as it didn’t count as a small business under the eligibility criteria.) Nor have the paper’s losses been limited to the pandemic; according to James, it still “hasn’t recovered financially” from the Tribune era and subsequent rebuild. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was so tired of the paper’s struggles that he was considering selling it, possibly to a bigger newspaper chain—though Soon-Shiong quickly slapped down the report as “inaccurate.” (“I tweeted within seconds,” he told CNN later. “I didn’t want to say the word ‘fake news.’”)

Sign up for CJR's daily email

James wrote yesterday that the hiring of Merida constitutes a reaffirmation of Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the LA Times. Early indications certainly are that Merida is well-placed to address the challenges facing the paper—he has a proven record when it comes to thinking about and covering race, both at The Undefeated and at the Post, where he also worked, as a managing editor, on the paper’s digital expansion in the years after Jeff Bezos acquired it. Still, the scale of the challenge is sharp; according to Vice, Pearlstine says he told Soon-Shiong, on taking over, that “there were no problems I hadn’t seen before coming to the Times, it’s just that I had never seen them all at once,” adding that “reviving the Times, while perhaps easier than curing cancer, was going to be immensely complicated.” Merida is inheriting a better situation than Pearlstine did, but the LA Times is still clearly in a period of transition—in terms of its business model and inward- and outward-facing self-conception. That presents Merida with an opportunity—even if, from the outside, opportunity isn’t all that is visible.

Below, more on Kevin Merida and newspapers:

  • Some background: In her story yesterday, James had some detailed biographical information on Merida. He was born in Wichita, Kansas, then relocated to the DC area after his father landed a job at the Museum of Natural History; in 1973, he “was among the first class of about 32,000 students who were bused from their neighborhoods in Prince George’s County, Maryland,” and he later studied journalism at Boston University. Today, Merida is married to Donna Britt, an author and columnist. Their youngest son, Skye Merida, hosts a podcast called No Capes Required, about comic-book heroes. Their two elder sons, Justin Britt-Gibson and Darrell Britt-Gibson, are, respectively, a screenwriter and an actor, and are already based in LA.
  • The Undefeated: Following Merida’s departure, The Undefeated promoted Raina Kelley, its managing editor, to vice president and editor in chief. Kelley worked at Newsweek prior to joining ESPN, in 2011, as a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine. According to a press release, she was “Merida’s first hire for The Undefeated’s senior management team,” and has since been “instrumental in the platform’s growth.”
  • The Post, I: Merida was initially thought to be a strong contender for the top job at the Post, after Marty Baron announced his retirement from the paper in January, but he reportedly decided against entering a formal application—a development, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reported in March, that created “consternation” internally. “Merida was encouraged to apply for the job, but he wasn’t exactly courted, at least not in the way one might have expected given all the boxes he appears to tick off: vast experience at the Post and support from former colleagues; stewardship of an innovative digital start-up inside a major media corporation; prominent journalist of color,” Pompeo wrote. The LA Times, by contrast, courted Merida vigorously. (The Post job remains vacant.)
  • The Post, II: Yesterday, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Washingtonian published a memo that management at the Post sent to the paper’s staff as “we enter the season of festivals and parades”; the memo advised that staff may attend “celebratory parades or festivals that are not partisan or political,” offering Pride and Juneteenth as examples, but must not attend “protests, demonstrations and partisan activities.” The memo continued: “It would be fine to participate in a celebration at BLM plaza but not a protest there or attend a Pride gathering but not a demonstration at the Supreme Court.”
  • The Chicago Tribune: Last week, John Kass, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, shared a tweet complaining about a HuffPost headline on police killings and referring to the media as “the enemy of the people.” After colleagues criticized Kass, he responded on his podcast that “in my heart, I wasn’t endorsing the idea that media is the enemy of the people. Is a retweet an endorsement? I was angry at the irresponsible headlines.” The Chicago media-watcher Robert Feder has the details.
  • The Colorado Sun: The Colorado Sun, a news site founded by disillusioned former staffers of the hedge-fund-owned Denver Post, has acquired a chain of twenty-four suburban newspapers in the Denver area. It has made the acquisition in partnership with  the National Trust for Local News, a new Colorado-based nonprofit; Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the trust’s founder and CEO, called the deal “a new experiment with a different kind of financing and a different kind of ownership.” NPR’s David Folkenflik has more.

A programming note:
We’re continuing to roll out our latest issue of the magazine, which asks the question “What is journalism?” In an entirely digital project, composed of five chapters, we’re confronting the assumptions we make about our work—so much so that we’ve referred to this as “the Existential Issue.” Today we encourage you to read the introduction by Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of CJR, and check out Chapter 2: Where.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s Existential Issue, Clare Malone profiles the YouTuber Philip DeFranco. “If, years ago, onlookers expressed curiosity about how long it would be until YouTubers entered the media mainstream, it’s instead the mainstream media that has become more like YouTube: busted up into narrow verticals of interest,” Malone writes. DeFranco is “a well-developed model for a recently emergent category: the journalist-influencer. His career path becomes instructive to the newsy YouTube shows, Substacks, Patreons, TikToks, and Twitches that continue to proliferate, as their proprietors must learn to balance coverage, business, and community—all while maintaining trust.”
  • Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of NPR’s first original broadcast—an episode of All Things Considered about an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in DC. (You can listen here.) To mark the anniversary, 1A looked back at NPR’s history, and forward to the next fifty years, posing questions about “why public radio sounds the way it does,” objectivity, and how best to reach audiences. Writing for the Post, Elahe Izadi reports that NPR is increasingly putting its hit podcasts—whose listenership “far more closely mirrors the country’s racial demographics than does its traditional radio audience”—on the air.
  • Apollo Global Management, a private-equity firm, is buying Verizon’s media assets, which comprise Yahoo and AOL, for around five billion dollars—roughly four billion dollars less than Verizon paid for the two sites. (Verizon will retain a ten-percent stake in the businesses.) Apollo executives told the Wall Street Journal that Verizon—in treating the media businesses primarily as a complement to its core mobile business—had failed to “pursue some opportunities to maximize the value of each asset.”
  • In other media-acquisitions news, Gray Television is buying seventeen TV stations from the publisher Meredith in a deal worth nearly three billion dollars. According to Variety, Gray “has been actively scooping up TV stations for the past several years,” and will now own around a hundred outlets reaching over a third of US TV households; Meredith, by contrast, “is slimming down to focus on its magazine publishing and digital assets.”
  • Also for our issue, Emily Bell explores how tech platforms decide what counts as journalism. They are currently “being held accountable for developing an information ecosystem based in fact,” Bell writes. “It’s unclear how much they are prepared to do, if they will ever really invest in pro-truth mechanisms on a global scale. But it is clear that, after the Capitol riot, there’s no going back to the way things used to be.”
  • Last night, Rick Santorum appeared on CNN for the first time since he gave a speech in which he erased Native American history and culture; he appeared on Chris Cuomo’s show, and tried to explain away the remarks. Afterward, Don Lemon, a CNN host, was furious, accusing Santorum of trying to “whitewash the whitewash that he whitewashed,” rather than apologizing. “I apologize to the viewers who were insulted by it,” Lemon said.
  • Florent Bajrami and Llazar Semini report, for the Associated Press, that the pandemic has left the European country of Kosovo without a single print newspaper. Imer Mushkolaj, who heads the country’s Print Media Council, believes that Kosovo is the only place in Europe where that is the case; he also fears that online newsgathering prioritizes speed over accuracy and can deprive older readers of access and clarity.
  • The Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan profiles Laurianne Despeghel and Mario Romero Zavala, an economic consultant and software developer, respectively, who figured out a way to report the true COVID death toll in Mexico City as official figures lagged. The pair found a “disturbing pattern,” Sheridan writes. “Unlike in New York or Madrid, deaths in Mexico City didn’t plummet after the initial pandemic spike. Instead, the numbers hit a plateau.”
  • And for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Sam Sokol profiles Walter Bingham, a British-Israeli man who, at ninety-seven, was just confirmed by Guinness World Records as the oldest working journalist in the world. Per Sokol, Bingham hosts “the ongoing Walter’s World program on Israel National Radio, a right-wing news site based in the West Bank settlement of Beit El.”

From the Existential Issue: The Pirate Radio Capital

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.