Why the Kevin Merida announcement is good news for the Los Angeles Times

Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.

It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:

His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.

Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.

Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.

One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”

The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.

All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.

Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.

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How FCC ownership regulations helped shape the Boston media landscape

Photo (cc) 2008 by Dan Kennedy

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a 2017 ruling by the FCC to loosen media ownership regulations, including an end to the so-called cross-ownership ban. That ban prohibits one entity from owning a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market.

The FCC’s long, tortured history on cross-ownership shaped the Boston media scene from the 1950s through the ’80s. Although the ban wasn’t formalized until 1975, the FCC had much to say about the issue well before that. No one told the story better than John Aloysius Farrell in his 2001 book “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” which I wrote about for The Boston Phoenix.

It’s a pretty amazing tale, and it’s crucial if you want to understand how the dynamic between The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald played out over the course of those decades. The very short version: the Boston Herald Traveler, with the support of the Kennedys, obtained the license to Channel 5 in the 1950s through corrupt means. The Globe, with the help of O’Neill, then a young congressman, exposed that corruption. That, in turn, led to the Herald’s losing the license to Channel 5 in the early 1970s, thus cementing the Globe’s status as the city’s dominant daily newspaper.

The final act played out in the late 1980s when Rupert Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, bought Channel 25 and sought a waiver from the FCC that would have allowed him to keep both. Sen. Ted Kennedy slipped an amendment into a bill that made it virtually impossible for the FCC to grant such a waiver. Several years later Murdoch sold the Herald to Pat Purcell, a longtime lieutenant. Although the Herald enjoyed a few years of prosperity under Purcell, it eventually entered a long, slow decline, ending in bankruptcy and the sale to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2018.

So now that the cross-ownership ban is gone, what’s next? A number of organizations, including the media-reform group Free Press, opposed the FCC’s move, arguing that it will make it more difficult for local groups, including those representing women and people of color, to acquire media outlets. I agree, although there’s also a case to be made that newspapers and, to some extent, broadcast media are so moribund that ownership regulations are more about the last century than this one.

It does seem likely to me that we’re going to see newsrooms that combine newspaper and broadcast operations in an attempt to save money. We’ll see less diversity and less coverage as a result. But given that virtually all media have shifted to the unregulated internet, the ultimate effect of such consolidation is yet to be determined.

How the COVID pandemic hypercharged Stat

Illustration (cc) 2020 by Prachatai

Luke Winkie has a terrific piece up at the Nieman Journalism Lab about the five-years-in-the-making overnight success of Stat, the health- and life-sciences site that’s part of Boston Globe Media.

The newly unionized Stat was designed as a niche site at is launch in 2015, which I wrote about for GBH News. Now the project is growing by leaps and bounds — from 1.5 million unique visitors a month in 2019 to 23 million, and, more recently, back to around 7 million. Stat has about 50 employees, which is about the same as when it started, though up slightly over its pre-pandemic head count. And it’s looking to hire another 20. Executive editor Rick Berke tells Winkie:

Stat has changed forever after last year. As a media company, we were on a good trajectory before the pandemic. But there’s no going back to the pre-pandemic reach that we had.

The Globe’s Stat goes union

Some pretty big news from the Boston Newspaper Guild: “Dozens” of journalists at Stat, the health- and life-sciences digital news organization that’s part of Boston Globe Media Partners, are becoming part of the union.

Stat was started in 2015, and its non-union status has been a source of tension, at least among some Globe staffers, right from the beginning — especially since Stat journalism often gets carried in the Globe.

The news comes after a year in which Stat really came into its own as a nationally respected source of information about the COVID epidemic. The full text of the press release from the Guild follows.

Journalists at Award-Winning STAT Are Joining The Boston Newspaper Guild

The Boston Newspaper Guild welcomes dozens of STAT media company employees operating in bureaus nationwide and overseas to the union representing workers at New England’s largest newspaper

BOSTON – Dozens of journalists from the award-winning STAT media company will be joining The Boston Newspaper Guild (BNG), the union which represents more than 300 Boston Globe employees, union representatives announced today.

“Becoming part of the Guild matters when it comes to things like job security, wages, and protection in the event ownership changes. This is a really exciting moment for us,” said STAT reporter Damian Garde. “I’m looking forward to collaborating on critical issues like securing better health insurance and other key benefits.”

“Having STAT workers become part of the Guild means a stronger voice. We all work within the structure of the Boston Globe Media Partners and we stand united,” said Guild President Scott Steeves, a publication layout designer at The Globe since 1984. “At a time when independent journalism is so important, Guild members strive to deliver the highest-quality news product possible while also standing together to ensure economic and workplace protections. Our members fight for good working conditions, fair treatment by management, and equitable opportunities when it comes to career advancement.”

STAT is a media company focused on finding and telling compelling stories about health, medicine, and scientific discovery. STAT is produced by Boston Globe Media and headquartered in Boston, but has bureaus and journalists in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. It was created by Globe Media owner John Henry.

STAT employs some of the best-sourced science, health, and biotech journalists in the country, as well as motion graphics artists and data visualization specialists.

Despite the skill and talent they contribute, these employees lack robust representation at work, an inequity that will be remedied with their inclusion in the Guild. With the rapid changes in media organizations, and increased corporatization of the news industry, the ability to advocate and speak out at work is essential.

BNG represents The Globe’s reporters, editors, page designers, web producers, advertising salespeople and advertising sales support persons, ad-designers, circulation managers, accountants, marketers, and information technology specialists, security guards, shippers/receivers, nurses, and secretaries. For decades, its members have produced Pulitzer Prize-winning, nationally-acclaimed work, as well as safeguarding the rights and benefits of Globe employees.

The STAT announcement takes place amid ongoing concern about Globe management’s handling of New England’s largest newspaper and its treatment of employees, who have been working for more than two years without a new contract. For months, Globe management has pushed to take away long-standing workplace protections and benefits. The Globe has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to retain the services of Jones Day, a law firm known for using questionable tactics to break media company unions.

“The work accomplished by the reporters at STAT over the past year was nothing short of extraordinary,” said business reporter and Guild member Janelle Nanos. “They helped drive the national coverage of the pandemic and in so doing, helped shape the conversations about how best to protect the nation. We at the Guild think it’s obvious that they should be afforded the same workplace protections as the Globe newsroom staff.”

“Our union will represent all workers who work as part of Boston Globe Media Partners in order to ensure everyone receives fair compensation for their work, while also improving transparency around employee benefits and building a culture that reflects the diversity, values, and strength of its workers,” said Guild recording secretary and reporter Matt Rocheleau. “STAT workers deserve a collective voice and seat at the table, together we can start collaborating and negotiating for a more equitable workplace.”

The Globe and BU will collaborate on an anti-racist digital publication

The Boston Globe’s opinion section and Boston University are launching an anti-racist initiative called The Emancipator, and they’re looking for an editor-in-chief. Here’s how the job listing begins:

The Boston Globe and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research are collaborating to resurrect the tradition of abolitionist-era journals such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’s The North Star via a new multimedia platform for opinion journalism. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, antislavery publications, many of which were founded in Boston, were the nation’s most influential megaphones for antislavery commentary and helped to bring about Emancipation. Today, we envision The Emancipator as a leading megaphone for antiracist commentary and ideas that are grounded in both scholarly research and journalistic reporting.

The editor will work out of the Globe’s newsroom (once it reopens, of course) with a co-editor based at BU. The project will be under the guidance of the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, and the director of BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, Ibram X. Kendi.

The Globe pays tribute to a classic New York Post headline. It didn’t quite work.

The Boston Globe today published an editorial admonishing the state for directing COVID relief to restaurants that have violated pandemic rules — including a strip club in Springfield that has run afoul of the FBI. When it came time to write the headline, though, someone decided to have some fun — and that’s where things went awry.

We begin with the inspiration for the Globe’s headline, the classic New York Post headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” so famous that when the editor who wrote it, Vincent Musetto, died in 2015, his genius was celebrated far and wide.

The Globe print headline: “Heedless bodies in topless bar.” Huh? Not quite sure that gets at it.

Click on it, though, and you get “Heedless bounty in topless bar,” which I’m guessing is what was intended.

The online headline, “State needs to hurry up with restaurant aid,” is serviceable but lacks panache.

So credit to the Globe for taking some chances. But I’m not sure it quite worked.

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Will Patrick Soon-Shiong stand up to Alden — or sell his newspapers?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

It was quite a week for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Tuesday came the news that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital was offering $630 million to boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32% to 100%. Alden would take Tribune private and then, presumably, do what it does: slash the newsrooms of the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and others to ribbons. One unexpected benefit: The Baltimore Sun and several sister papers would be acquired by a nonprofit foundation.

The complicating factor was that Soon-Shiong, the second-largest Tribune shareholder at 24%, has the right to veto Alden’s acquisition. Would he? Probably not, guessed Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. “I would bet that getting out with a good return on his investment will be Soon-Shiong’s main or sole objective,” Edmonds wrote.

Then, on Friday, came a bombshell. Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he bought the Times and the Union-Tribune from Tribune’s absurdly named predecessor, tronc.

“The move,” Alpert wrote, “marks an abrupt about-face for Mr. Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.” Soon-Shiong denied it, tweeting, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

We are left wondering what’s correct — “people familiar with the matter,” as Alpert described his sources, or Soon-Shiong’s on-the-record denial. Alpert is a good reporter, and presumably his sources are aware of at least some frustration on Soon-Shiong’s part. What’s especially worrisome is that Alpert’s sources say Soon-Shiong has come to believe his papers would be better off “as part of a larger media group.” Other than Alden or Gannett, it’s hard to imagine any other options. If Soon-Shiong is really tired of the business, why not sell them to a nonprofit?

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me not to think about all the times that John and Linda Henry have been rumored to be selling The Boston Globe since they bought it in 2013. Every so often they deny it, such as in 2018 and 2020. And there certainly haven’t been any signs that they’re selling.

Still, the Henry rumors never made it into The Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope that, whatever else comes out of the Tribune meltdown, Southern California’s major newspapers remain within the relatively safe orbit of Soon-Shiong’s protection.

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Could the Globe do more to fill the local news gap?

The Globe’s YourTown site for Needham circa 2010

Last Thursday we had a terrific panel discussion at Northeastern’s School of Journalism about the local news crisis in Greater Boston. Our panelists were state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, the lead sponsor of a state commission on local news that was recently created; retired Boston Globe editorial page editor Ellen Clegg; Yawu Miller, senior editor of The Bay State Banner; Bill Forry, managing editor of The Dorchester Reporter; and Julie McCay Turner, co-founder and managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that started as a volunteer project and that has gradually added paid journalism.

You can read Mihiro Shimano’s account at The Scope by clicking here. But I want to pick up on something that Ellen (my research partner on a book about local news) said about The Boston Globe’s role.

I was moderating and couldn’t take notes. But when I asked her about the Globe’s role in local news, she said the paper discovered about 20 years ago that it couldn’t make much of a dent at the hyperlocal level. Readers looked to their community weeklies and dailies for coverage of day-to-day life in their cities and towns. What the Globe could provide, she said, was regional coverage of issues that affected everyone — which is pretty much the mission statement for the paper in general.

As she also pointed out, the Globe now has a digital Rhode Island section, which is in keeping with the regional focus, and covers Newton through a partnership with Boston University. But could the paper do more?

Now that corporate-owned chains have decimated most of the once-strong community papers that circle Boston, I wonder if the Globe might be able to play more of a role. One idea would be to revive the YourTown websites that were unveiled during the last few years of New York Times Co. ownership. YourTown covered not just the Boston suburbs but neighborhoods within the city as well, which remains a crucial need. That was back in the days of the free web, and it proved impossible to sell ads for the sites. Now that everything is subscription-driven, though, would it be possible to try again?

There’s no substitute for independently owned community media, but a greater presence by the Globe — which itself is independently owned — might be the next best thing.

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Dueling takes on the state’s companion vaccine program

From today’s New York Times:
And today’s Boston Globe:

The Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on a Spotlight reporting project

The Boston Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on an unspecified investigative reporting project, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher. The partnership will produce “a multi-part investigative report that will be published by both organizations this fall.”

The project will be funded by the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, established by the Globe and Participant Media, the producers of the movie “Spotlight.” Grants of up to $100,000 are awarded to reporters or teams of reporters. This is the first time the Globe has partnered with another news organization. The series will be published by both papers.

Scott Allen, the Globe’s assistant managing editor for projects, declined in an email to say what the topic of the reporting would be — but when I noted that the Press Herald reporter who’ll be working on the project, Penelope Overton, covers the lobster industry, Allen said that “we expect to take full advantage of her considerable expertise.”

There are some interesting intersections between the Globe and the Press Herald. The E&P story points out that Press Herald managing editor Steve Greenlee worked at the Globe for 12 years. But it goes beyond that. Lisa DeSisto, who is chief executive officer of the Press Herald and its sister papers, was previously a high-ranking business-side executive at the Globe (and, before that, a colleague of mine at The Boston Phoenix).

The two papers also have the distinction of having been pursued by Boston-area businessman Aaron Kushner, who tried to buy the Globe in 2010 and nearly succeeded in buying the Press Herald in 2012. Kushner and a team of investors ended up purchasing the Orange County Register in Southern California later in 2012. They spent considerable resources in building up the Register and acquiring and launching other papers — only to tear it all down in short order when the hoped-for revenues failed to materialize. Today the Register is owned by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. (I tell the story of Kushner’s newspaper adventures in my book “The Return of the Moguls.”)

Today the Press Herald is owned by Reade Brower, a printer, who’s built a small chain of Maine newspapers and gets generally high marks for his stewardship. The Globe, of course, is owned by billionaires John and Linda Henry.