Inside the Los Angeles Times: “Norman Pearlstine and a summer of turmoil and scandals.”

From a Los Angeles Times story by Meg James and Daniel Hernandez headlined “L.A. Times shaken by a summer of turmoil and scandals”:

On a Friday night last month, Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine sent a short email to the newsroom, announcing sports columnist Arash Markazi had resigned.

The columnist had copied information contained in seven stories from other sources, an internal investigation found. Pearlstine said “for the record” clarifications were added to each of the articles.

But there was more to the story. For a year and a half, veteran sports writers had been roiled by Markazi’s penchant for lifting prose from press releases and other sources, his cozy relations with publicists and his social media posts that extolled businesses, including a Las Vegas luxury hotel.

Markazi’s departure was the latest in a series of scandals that has engulfed the newsroom and led to an extraordinary reshuffling atop The Times. Since early last year, six prominent editors have been either pushed out, demoted or had responsibilities reduced because of ethical lapses, bullying behavior or other failures of management.

The disciplinary actions have not quelled the furor in a newsroom already facing a painful self-examination over race. Pearlstine, under fire, acknowledged mistakes and defended his record. He’s not stepping down but said he hoped to soon accelerate succession planning with the paper’s owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong.

“Although the world has changed in the last six months, my values remain the same,” Pearlstine said. “I still believe that I’m a principled editor, always trying to do what’s best. That’s why I’m here.”

In 2018, Pearlstine went from leading the search for the new L.A. Times leader to becoming the executive editor himself. The 77-year-old newsman — a former top editor of Time Inc., the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and a senior executive at Bloomberg News — had the gravitas that Soon-Shiong and his wife, Michele B. Chan, were looking for after they purchased The Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune for $500 million. Pearlstine “came out of retirement,” he said, to lead the revival.

He’d be a transitional figure, a seasoned pro who could stabilize the ship and groom a new generation of leaders. But his effort to rebuild The Times, including recruiting high-level editors, replenishing the ranks and revamping the paper’s dated technologies, has been hampered by newsroom turmoil.

Soon-Shiong expressed support for Pearlstine.

“I was completely befuddled by the acrimony that’s been launched at Norm, especially at this stage in his career, where he should be lauded for his contributions to American journalism,” Soon-Shiong said. “I felt he was so valuable to our organization.”

With the Soon-Shiong family’s 2018 acquisition came a renewed sense of hope after a decade of upheaval. But managerial missteps and ethical lapses have contributed to anxiety and distrust in the newsroom, according to interviews with more than 50 current and former staffers. As The Times raced to amplify its journalism, top editors allowed management problems to fester.

“The pain of the past has never really healed,” Image Editor Marques Harper said. “After the sale, we were expecting that a reimagination and rejuvenation would unfold. Instead, we’ve had controversies and scandals.”. . .

The summer of troubles for The Times first boiled over after George Floyd’s killing on May 25 in Minneapolis. Journalists were on edge after agreeing to temporary furloughs because of the plunge in advertising brought on by the novel coronavirus. Staff members took to social media and the communication platform Slack to demand The Times address failures in covering communities of color and retaining journalists from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Younger journalists are demanding more of their managers than previous generations,” said Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute. “Management teams across all of journalism are figuring this out. It is not unique to the L.A. Times.”

Criticism about institutional racism was soon joined by outrage over accusations of ethical violations and managerial wrongdoing. Two sections of the newspaper became flash points: Food and Sports. . . .

By early 2019, The Times was searching for ways to engage readers beyond its base of older and more affluent Angelenos. Part of the plan was to cover esports, gambling and Las Vegas, a big draw for Southern Californians.

Angel Rodriguez, then assistant managing editor for Sports, thought Markazi, an L.A.-based ESPN writer who covered Las Vegas sports, would be a good fit. With a Hollywood-esque, man-about-town swagger, Markazi had amassed 120,000 Twitter followers and built an Instagram audience captivated by his weight-loss journey.

The paper trumpeted his hiring, but several veteran journalists conveyed their alarm to Rodriguez. Among them was sports enterprise reporter Nathan Fenno.

“Arash appears to have a history of adhering to ethical standards that are different than the ones we abide by,” Fenno wrote in an email to Rodriguez days after Markazi was hired. He referenced behavior that would run afoul of The Times’ ethics guidelines, including “not identifying himself as a journalist … [and] promoting companies he patronizes.”. . .

Few departments symbolized the paper’s ambitions and the lessons of its recent failings more than Food. Food coverage became a key focus of the newspaper’s transformation under Soon-Shiong, and Yoshino was leading the effort, which attempted to create an all-star team built around the hiring of editor Peter Meehan.

The 2018 death of Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold left the section without its sage byline and dealt an emotional blow to the entire newsroom, editors and staffers said. Yoshino, seeking a boost, set out to achieve the biggest “get” in a post-Gold era: bringing in Meehan, who had co-founded the subversive food publication Lucky Peach.

With Meehan, the paper set out to relaunch a stand-alone Food section with the kind of splashy art and editorial verve that had defined Lucky Peach. The Times also started building a new test kitchen at the paper’s El Segundo campus. Two new food critics were hired for the nearly impossible job of filling Gold’s shoes: Patricia Escárcega and Bill Addison.

By January 2019, Meehan was named Food editor, although he wouldn’t live in Los Angeles full-time, staying in New York while one of his children finished the school year. Andrea Chang, who had joined the Food section as a reporter the summer before, was named Meehan’s deputy.

Along the way, Meehan developed a reputation as a bullying boss and colleague. For tastemakers and executives above his rank, Meehan was all shine, wowing his own bosses with results, but once he turned to managing below, he could become explosive, according to current and former staffers, some of whom went public recently with their concerns on social media. . . .

Seven months later, on July 1, Meehan was gone. The editor resigned after a series of tweets by a New York food writer alleged that he was a tyrannical boss at Lucky Peach and raised questions about his behavior at The Times. The tweets, by writer Tammie Teclemariam, emboldened the Food staff in Los Angeles: They too began posting about their unpleasant interactions with Meehan. The silence was broken.

Escárcega said the situation seemed emblematic of a larger problem: the view that certain recently hired stars inside The Times are protected. . . .

Meehan’s hiring also pointed to what some see as a blind spot in Pearlstine’s practices. He recruited big-name journalists, often from New York, to make a splash. Some had worked out — others did not, including Meehan and Stuart Emmrich, a former New York Times style editor.

Pearlstine and Emmrich had worked together before, and they bumped into each other at a Committee to Protect Journalists dinner in November 2018. The pair met for coffee the next day, and two months later, Emmrich joined the L.A. Times to lead the Saturday, Image and Travel sections.

But the culture clash was immediate for Emmrich, who inherited a depleted staff of about 10, and employees chafed at his brusque manner. Behind his back, the staff began referring to Emmrich as “The Devil Wears Khakis,” a reference to the demanding fashion editor from the novel and film “The Devil Wears Prada.” Emmrich lasted just nine months. . . .

Within days of becoming executive editor in June 2018, Pearlstine received an anonymous complaint from several former and current staffers who called a powerful masthead editor, Colin Crawford, a “bully” and a “frat boy.”

Before long, a reporter from another news outlet, BuzzFeed, knew about the anonymous complaint and began sniffing around. (BuzzFeed later dropped the story.)

That was Pearlstine’s introduction into a newsroom culture in which journalists have used their skills to dig up information to expose the failings of managers. Such efforts were instrumental in forcing the ouster of previous top executives, including former Publisher-Editor Davan Maharaj in 2017, former Editor Lewis D’Vorkin in 2018 and former Publisher Ross Levinsohn in 2018.

The hard-knuckled campaigns fueled the formation of the Los Angeles Times Guild and helped prompt Tronc to sell The Times to Soon-Shiong. Now Pearlstine and his management team were under the microscope. . . .

Among those most critical of management was Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Paul Pringle, who was part of a grassroots group in the newsroom that maneuvered behind the scenes to force out previous leaders and has doggedly pursued the Santa Anita and Pac-12 controversies.

“We’re trying to put our own house in order,” said Pringle, who was a guild liaison for Sports until last year. . .

Amid the rising friction, multiple outlets began reporting on the paper’s management woes. The leaks of internal material to competitors also raised tensions inside.

“It completely pains me,” Soon-Shiong said of the newsroom leaks. “They have to ask themselves … a very simple question: Am I doing the right thing?”

Soon-Shiong emphasized that staffers need to see themselves as partners with management, not antagonists. And he’s gotten a better view of the situation this summer after he, his wife Michele and their daughter Nika began conversations with the newsroom’s Black Caucus and Latino Caucus, as the paper grapples with its historical mistreatment of people of color.

“We need to listen,” Soon-Shiong said. “The pain was real. People really felt distraught, but I think it was a bit unfairly directed just to management.”

Since the marathon June town hall meeting, The Times has taken steps to address its shortcomings, including mandatory employee training on bias.

It named Kimbriell Kelly, deputy editor for investigations, as incoming Washington bureau chief, the first Black journalist to hold the prestigious newsroom title. Earlier this month, the paper elevated Angel Jennings — the lone Black reporter in the Metro department — to the masthead as the paper’s first Culture and Talent editor.

Soon-Shiong, for his part, said staffers must feel comfortable bringing complaints forward without fear “of any retribution.”

“It’s not good for any of us to continue this squabbling,” Soon-Shiong said. “We’ve got to work together because there’s an opportunity here for us to thrive.”

The paper, he said, will begin a search for a successor to Pearlstine when Pearlstine is ready to step down. Pearlstine said he hoped to have that conversation with Soon-Shiong by year’s end.

“The right person will be the right person when that person shows up,” Soon-Shiong said. “To be honest, we’ve not found or seen that person yet.”

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