February 25, 2024

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LA Times guild members met with management on Wednesday to try to create order from the chaos of the bloodiest layoffs in decades at the nation’s largest West Coast newspaper.

Update: Even at midnight on Wednesday, the turmoil continued as the guild informed members of additional cuts. “In one of the most bizarre days of bargaining we’ve experienced, the company unexpectedly raised its layoff target and sent out five more layoff notices Wednesday night – then as midnight neared and we raised protests for our affected colleagues, signaled these notices might not be final,” read the note, obtained by TheWrap.

That note followed a day full of tension and anger.

Barely 24 hours after billionaire owner Patrick Soon-Shiong imposed more than 115 job cuts, reducing about 20% of the newsroom, staffers arriving at the paper’s offices in El Segundo were greeted by security guards checking a list to ensure laid-off colleagues were denied entry.

The job cuts, dictated by a last-hired-first-fired contract, were among the most sweeping in the paper’s 142-year history. Cutting a deep swath across the newsroom and raising serious questions about the paper’s ability to report the news in a presidential election year, they come amid a wave of layoffs at other legacy publications, including Time magazine and Sports Illustrated, in a year media analysts predict will be one of the bloodiest ever for journalism.

Soon-Shiong gutted the Times’ Washington, D.C. bureau, firing the chief, Kimbriell Kelly, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. He laid off the Business Editor, a deputy and three business writers; sent packing at least three sports beat writers, covering the Angels, Dodgers and LA Clippers; fired the books editor, Boris Kachka, and pushed out Music Editor Craig Marks. Pulitzer Prize winner Sarah Parvini and Pulitzer finalist photographer Francine Orr also got pink slips, as well as videographer Maggie Beidelman, who was part of a team that won a Gerald Loeb Award last year for the series, “Repowering the West.”

And a new initiative titled “De Los,” geared at attracting LA’s fast-growing Latino population —already 49% of the city — was effectively dismantled, with at least five team members cut, according to Nieman Lab.

The online equivalent of a primal scream rose up from dozens of LA Times supporters, anguished not only at the cuts themselves — which followed a 13% cut last summer — but at the way they went down. Most did not accept Soon-Shiong’s contention that the guild had soured a deal to allow for buyouts rather than firing because of the 24-hour work stoppage on Friday.

“When you cut 30% of the newsroom — we’ve seen it at every newspaper in the country — that’s the beginning of the end,” Jack Herrera, a former national correspondent who was based in Austin, Texas, told TheWrap. “I hope I’m wrong, that this wasn’t a grievous wound and that the paper’s going to come out of it. But it’s going to be a shell of itself.”

Hillary Manning, the LA Times spokesperson, did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

LA times staffers at the walkout rally in downtown LA on Jan. 19, 2024 (Sharon Knolle/TheWrap)

Fellow staffers lamented the loss of talent on social media. Posting on X, Times crime reporter James Queally called Orr, a 23-year staffer who was a Pulitzer finalist in 2012 for a portrait of families and children who live with autism, “the heart of this place. She has an almost supernatural level of empathy and care toward every person she photographs. One of the people the L.A. Times simply can’t function without. Today is a fiasco.”

Los Angeles-based genre film fest Beyond Fest grieved the loss of film reporter Jen Yamato, tweeting, “Jen is the best goddamn writer out there.” Melanie Lynskey, the star of “Yellowjackets,” added on X:  “Jen, I’m so sorry. You are the best!!”

Yamato shared that she was informed she had been laid off while she was “up at 6 a.m. at Sundance to cover Oscar nominations.”

None of this had gone smoothly — in fact it was the messiest layoffs in decades, longtime staffers told TheWrap. Two weeks ago, Executive Editor Kevin Merida abruptly resigned after less than three years in the job, in part because he knew he would have to oversee sweeping cutbacks at a publication that was operating without a publisher or CEO and losing about $40 million a year. As the guild learned that layoffs were coming, members chose to stage a massive one-day walkout from their jobs in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., which 90% of guild members showed up for.

I hope I’m wrong, that this wasn’t a grievous wound and that the paper’s going to come out of it. But it’s going to be a shell of itself.

Jack Herrera, former national correspondent based in Austin, Texas

The guild expected to negotiate the layoffs before they were announced. But after Friday’s protest, management decided to lower the boom before the meeting in El Segundo.

Staffers targeted for firing were notified by email, which in some cases landed in their spam folders, one non-guild staffer told TheWrap on Wednesday. Eventually, calls were made. Then management organized a hasty Zoom call in which guild members were not allowed to ask questions; they were presented with information and told of the steps going forward. Amid the negotiations in recent days, two managing editors, Shani Hilton and Sara Yasin, stepped down.

Laid-off staffers told TheWrap they will receive two months severance pay.

In the note to members, the guild said it was “stunned by management’s capriciousness,” saying that owner Soon-Shiong had changed its target for layoffs continually.

Soon-Shiong, speaking out in an interview in his own paper, blamed the guild’s leaders, including Brian Contreras, a technology reporter and the guild’s Unit Council chair who was laid off, for not being willing to meet with management to discuss buyouts.

The owner, who purchased the paper in 2018 for $500 million and proceeded to invest heavily and boost staffing, told the newspaper that he was particularly disappointed with the guild for focusing energy into a one-day work stoppage on Friday, rather than presenting a plan that would have saved jobs, which the owner said “did not help” the situation.

None of the staffers TheWrap spoke to blamed the guild. “I don’t think people are mad at the union, they are united against a common enemy, the hand that feeds us, [Soon-Shiong],” the non-guild staffer said. “If he is not dipping into his wallet we don’t eat. That is life with a billionaire owner.”

Under the guild contract, which was signed in 2019, a 14-day period kicked in on Tuesday for other staffers to raise their hands and volunteer for buyouts which could save some of those targeted for layoffs. (After the paper cut 74 jobs last year, a handful of staffers volunteered for buyouts and some of those targeted for dismissal had their employment status restored.)

Kevin Merida

Kevin Merida resigned as Executive Editor before the layoffs (Chris Loupos for TheGrill 2021)

Diversity loses

Minority hires were deeply impacted by the layoffs, according to the guild, with the Latino Caucus losing 38% of its members and the Black Caucus losing 33% of members. The AAPI and MENASA caucuses of the guild will also lose 34% of their combined membership.

The cuts have left less than 20 Black staffers remaining in the union, undercutting previously stated company goals to diversify the staff further by 2025, according to a guild statement on Tuesday.

De Los, a Latino-led, Latino-centered initiative launched in July by Merida, was “gutted” by the layoffs on Tuesday. According to Nieman Lab, De Los cuts included three reporters, an assistant editor, and a culture columnist. The vertical was part of an effort to “engage younger audiences” in an effort to add more digital subscriptions, Merida told Axios. The initiative was also a push to align the newspaper with the demographic makeup of Los Angeles, where half of all residents are Latino.

“Many people are particularly angry about De Los getting gutted,” a staffer who was not laid off told TheWrap. “Some people who were laid off from other sections said they were more upset about De Los than about losing their own job.”

Herrera agreed that the layoffs are “100%” disproportionately affecting people of color.

He was encouraged by the “really great strides” the paper had made in the last five or six years in increasing Latino staffers. “The fact that they were hiring a lot of us, that was a great sign,” he said, adding that he was optimistic about his job and the push for diversity until Merida’s exit. “I thought this is the place where we figure it out, this is where it was going to happen. And sadly, a lot of those people are packing up their stuff along with me today.”

The commitment expressed in creating the De Los section was genuine, Herrera said. “I’m not going to impugn anybody’s commitment to diversity. Cash flow is far and away the guiding principle for their actions right now, and diversity is lower on the list in this moment…I don’t think they chose to lay off people of color and Latinos just because they wanted a whiter newspaper. I think that their financial crushes made them make what I think is an incorrect decision.”

Washington bureau hollowed out in election year

Among the casualties in the shuttering of the D.C. bureau were a Congressional reporter; Kelly, the bureau chief who was also an Assistant Managing Editor; her deputy and a White House reporter, according to the Nieman Lab.

“This is a crisis. Every journalist we lose is another step towards losing our democracy, because journalists are the working people who make sure we’re informed and safe,” Jon Schleuss, president of The NewsGuild – Communications Workers of America, which is based in D.C., told TheWrap.

“Without them we lose the critical coverage our communities deserve: at city council meetings, at school boards and in the halls of Congress,” said Schleuss. “These layoffs will devastate our ability to stay informed at such a critical time. If we care about democracy, we need to stand up and fight for America’s journalists.”

Herrera shared that when he interviewed for his national posting, he was told that the expected shelf life of his job was one to two years. He’s discouraged that, as it turned out, his tenure was less than one year. But on Wednesday, he took a more optimistic tone. “Knowing how many incredible journalists are still at the LA Times gives me hope that if any place can survive after deep cuts, it’s that paper,” he said.

The post Chaos, Fury Engulf Los Angeles Times in Historic Cuts to Newsroom  appeared first on TheWrap.