Tensions rise between the LA Times and its billionaire owner
Perhaps Soon-Shiong’s biggest breakthrough was Merida’s hiring. The announcement was cheered by everyone in the newsroom. Soon-Shiong himself heralded it as a chance to bring stability to the newspaper – “to grow and be around for another 139 years” – and to broaden its ambitions.
“His mandate will be to maintain the highest level of journalistic strength and find ways to engage the attention of our community,” Soon-Shiong said, “not just Los Angelenos but West Area readers and, hopefully even the nation.”
As soon as Soon-Shiong welcomed Merida’s hiring, he made his job harder. The owner did not call some of the other internal candidates to thank them for applying, according to a person familiar with the matter, creating some bitterness within the editorial staff.
Merida seemed to understand that keeping Soon-Shiong’s attention was a top priority. As LA Magazine noted, he moved into a Brentwood guesthouse across from Soon-Shiong. He also took on much of the responsibility for managing family and staff relations.
Before Merida started and after she came aboard, the newspaper received acclaim for its work, including coverage of the rise and fall of superlawyer Tom Girardi and ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ star Erika. Jayne; for reporting on the deadly shooting on the set of Alec Baldwin’s film “Rust”; for Sheriff’s Department review; and for coverage and major projects on climate change.
But creating the stable work environment described by Soon-Shiong has been elusive, particularly at the paper’s Washington office.
A staple of political coverage, the DC office was celebrated when it recruited Kimbriell Kelly, a Pulitzer-winning journalist at the Washington Post, to serve as its 2019 editor. In fall 2020, Kelly was promoted in the office. main role. She became the first person of color, and only the second woman, to hold this position.
His directive was to broaden the scope and impact of the office’s reports. But his approach soon created problems.
Shortly after the election, Kelly began clashing with one of the office’s most well-known staffers, Jackie Calmes. Calmes had taken over as White House editor at that time. But Kelly informed her that she wanted to hire her own assistant before deciding who would fill the role of editor permanently. During that call, according to four people with knowledge of the incident, Kelly told Calmes that her grief for two recently deceased family members was affecting her work.
Friction intensified. When Calmes asked for two weeks of compensation time in late January, Kelly said she hadn’t allowed her to work overtime in the previous three months. This quickly led to several Zoom calls with Kelly, as well as with human resources and union representatives. On the first call, Kelly reiterated that she had not authorized Calmes’ extra work. Calmes responded by saying the desk had been understaffed during a news cycle that featured ongoing election objections and the Jan. 6 riots and that she needed to get back to work.
People close to Kelly said Calmes was openly disrespectful. Kelly was a newcomer to work and a black woman joining an office that was largely white and male. Calmes, for his part, refused to speak with Kelly without a union representative present. Early in the summer, Kelly filed a disciplinary action accusing Calmes of insubordination and suggesting it could lead to his dismissal.
Ultimately, both parties moved on after other DC staffers wrote Kelly a letter encouraging her to withdraw her insubordination charge, which she did.
Eventually, Calmes moved from an editorial role under Kelly to the newspaper’s opinion section. Calmes declined to comment beyond saying she never disrespected Kelly.
In a statement to POLITICO, Kelly did not directly address the Calmes incident, but touted the changes she has made to the office, including increasing diversity among staff spanning the White House and Congress. .
“We have…built one of the most inclusive reporting teams in Washington as we work to realize Kevin Merida and the Soon-Shiong family’s shared vision for a new LA Times. Like many news agencies, we have had staff changes,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud to work with our amazing staff, and I look forward to continuing to lead our Washington coverage and serve our LA Times audience everywhere.”
Frustration within the office, however, lingered. At least eight reporters out of a staff of 30 have left the office since Kelly took over, although she noted eight were added “in the last year”.
In March, the DC office held a virtual meeting with Merida and Kelly in which superiors were asked about the staff departure. A member of staff told him the exodus was a “five-alarm fire”. Merida didn’t explain how the paper handled the departures, except to say he cared about Washington’s coverage and knew the bureau was having trouble, according to a person at the meeting.
“They continue to swing way above their weight and the LA Times is still covering stories that others in Washington aren’t covering,” said Bob Drogin, the former deputy Washington bureau chief who passed by. 38 years old at the newspaper. But, he added, “It is unfortunate that there has been so much unrest in the office over the past two years…I am afraid it has diverted attention from the main mission of the office of Washington, and the loss of so many experienced and talented journalists has clearly hurt daily news production.