New L.A. Times Editor Jim Kirk vows ‘fresh start’ to unify newsroom after turmoil
Jim Kirk, the Los Angeles Times’ newly installed editor in chief, on Monday sought to soothe a newsroom roiled by months of turmoil — a unionization campaign by staff members, distrust about the motives of corporate leaders and a revolving door in management.
Kirk flew into Los Angeles on Monday morning, 24 hours after accepting the top editorial job at The Times in the latest management shake-up. Then, in a late afternoon staff meeting, the new boss took questions for nearly 50 minutes, standing in front of the darkened glass-walled office that his predecessor, Lewis D’Vorkin, had occupied for just three months.
“I want to start fresh and bring this newsroom together,” Kirk told the nearly 200 newsroom employees who attended the meeting. “There has been too much not-togetherness in the past few months, and if we want to be successful, that has to change.”
It was a starkly different tone than that set by D’Vorkin, who conducted two contentious staff meetings, including one in which he scolded employees after discovering that someone had leaked a recording of a previous gathering to the New York Times. D’Vorkin had begun assembling a separate team of journalists to create digital content for social media and mobile phones. But he had declined to discuss those plans, raising suspicions among reporters, editors, photographers and producers.
Kirk, 52, pledged to be transparent in his dealings with the newsroom, but he declined to speculate on why D’Vorkin was abruptly forced out.
D’Vorkin, 65, will move to a new position as Tronc’s chief content officer, spearheading the company’s initiative to create news “verticals” and other digital products to try to capitalize on the reach of the company, which also owns newspapers in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and San Diego.
As part of the shake-up, Mickie Rosen, who served as The Times’ president for three months, also is expected to shift to a new role within the parent company, according to knowledgeable people who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Meanwhile, an investigation by the Sidley Austin law firm into the behavior of Times publisher Ross Levinsohn continues. Levinsohn, who joined the paper in August, was placed on unpaid leave earlier this month after a detailed report by National Public Radio, which revealed that Levinsohn had been a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits.
Levinsohn also is taking a leave of absence from the board of Tribune Media, which owns TV stations and was part of the newspaper company until a 2014 spinoff.
At the staff meeting Monday, one writer asked Kirk if he had ever been accused of sexual harassment.
“No,” Kirk said, prompting applause from the room.
It was a return to Los Angeles for Kirk, the former editor and publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times. The Illinois native joined Tronc in August and was quickly dispatched to L.A. on Aug. 21 in the previous management overhaul. He served as interim editor until D’Vorkin, a former top editor at Forbes, came onboard on Nov. 1.
Just last week, Kirk was managing the recently acquired New York Daily News as its interim editor, an assignment he was handed one week before. He returned to his Chicago home for the weekend, where he got a call asking whether he wanted to lead The Times’ newsroom. Monday morning, he was on his way to California.
Kirk becomes The Times’ 17th top editor since the paper began publishing in 1881 — and its third in the last six months.
Unifying the newsroom will be key to Kirk’s and the newspaper’s success, analysts said.
“When the news industry is facing such huge challenges, all hands need to be pointed in the same direction, trying to figure out ways to better reach consumers on digital platforms,” said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Kirk said he wanted to expand the newsroom and its diversity. But he was candid that there might be more layoffs, though he said none were currently planned. The Times, and other newspapers, have been hit hard financially as advertisers shift dollars to internet giants Google, Facebook and others.
“There will be tough choices to make, but I promise that we will be transparent when we have to make those choices,” Kirk said.
Through the first nine months of 2017, Tronc reported that print advertising revenue was down 17% compared with the same period a year earlier, while the company’s digital ad revenue fell 6%. The company is expected to release its full yearly earnings in the next few weeks.
“The financial pressures are great — we are a publicly traded company,” Kirk said, but he added that he wanted to see The Times grow — not shrink further. “I’m not going to sit here and watch the diminution of the great Los Angeles Times. That’s not why I came out here.”
Kirk praised the quality of the journalism, citing The Times’ coverage of fires, mudslides, the Mexico City earthquake and sexual harassment scandals in Hollywood and Sacramento. He also touted sports coverage of the Dodgers’ run to the World Series and investigative stories on Walt Disney Co.’s strained relationship with Anaheim that drew the wrath of the company. The Burbank entertainment giant shut out The Times’ reporters and film critics, and staff members were disappointed with what they viewed as D’Vorkin’s lack of public support for the series.
Kirk was peppered with questions about the digital strategy pursued by D’Vorkin, which had prompted fears in the newsroom that the company might blur the lines between news and advertising. Kirk said Tronc was expected to provide more detail about its plans later this week. He said he will work with D’Vorkin and other executives, but those digital products would be separate from The Times.
“Our future is digital,” Kirk said earlier in an interview. “We have to monetize our content. We have to be smarter when it comes to social media and understanding how we can propel our content on multiple platforms. That will be our primary goal.”
The management shuffle comes less than two weeks after the newsroom voted 248 to 44 to join the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America — a historic step for an organization that had operated 136 years without a unionized newsroom.
Before the vote, Kirk and D’Vorkin had sent several joint memos to the staff making a case against unionizing the newsroom. On Monday, Kirk said it was time to move forward and that he was ready to negotiate a contract that would be fair to workers.
“There is not going to be a fight, but there will be a negotiation,” he said. “The union is here. The goal is to work together to get a good contract.”