Can The Daily News and LA Times Survive Their Tronc-ing?

The LA Times and Daily News newsrooms are in various states of turmoil, not least around the intentions of owner, tronc. Two veteran editors are seeking to steady the ships.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

“When I’m out on assignment, people talk to me the way you talk to a cancer patient,” a  reporter for the Los Angeles Times told The Daily Beast. “They say, ‘Are you ok?,’ in that kind of cancer voice.”

At the New York Daily News, “people are fucking angry,” said a longtime veteran of the 99-year-old tabloid.

Both newspapers have been roiled in recent weeks by allegations of sexual harassment, management shakeups, journalistic missteps, staff turmoil,  and fears for the future, and both are troubled properties of tronc (a ghastly lowercase mashup of “tribune online content,” formerly Tribune Publishing)—which, as John Oliver pointed out, “sounds like the noise an ejaculating elephant makes or, more appropriately, the sound of a stack of print newspapers being thrown into a dumpster.”

Erstwhile Times publisher and Editor in Chief Davan Maharaj, according to a newsroom source, lamented to staffers, shortly before he was sacked last year, that the top executives in Chicago (where the Chicago Tribune is tronc’s flagship paper), chose the new company name in June 2016 without consulting a branding specialist, and were caught by surprise when the change to “tronc” was greeted with widespread ridicule.

These are symptoms of a death spiral. They don’t know what to do with these papers and they are thrashing around to find a formula that will work

Like nearly every other newspaper in the country, including the 47 papers owned by tronc, the Times and the Daily News have struggled to remain viable amid a climate of plunging advertising revenue and paid circulation brought on by the digital revolution.

“These are symptoms of a death spiral,” said longtime magazine and newspaper editor Edward Kosner, who ran the Daily News’ editorial side from 2000 to 2004. “They don’t know what to do with these papers and they are thrashing around to find a formula that will work.” (Full disclosure: this reporter worked at the Daily News from 2003 to 2006.)

Kosner continued: “I just don’t think they have a business model in New York and they may not have a business model in Los Angeles anymore. I feel very badly. I love newspapers, and I love the work. But I think these companies, tronc especially, don’t know what to do with these properties, so they’re trying every desperate measure, and it’s blowing up in their face.”

Still, stressed-out journalists in both Los Angeles and New York are hoping for the best from the latest overhaul—the appointments of Jim Kirk as top editor of the Times and Jim Rich as editor in chief of the Daily News. (Neither Kirk nor Rich provided a comment for this story.)

For both men, it’s a chaotic return engagement. Rich, 46, who spent 2017 as editorial director of The Huffington Post, was fired as the Daily News’ top editor after barely a year in October 2016—11 months before mercurial real estate billionaire Mort Zuckerman, the paper’s owner for a quarter century, sold the money-losing tabloid to tronc for $1 plus the assumption of tens of millions in debt and pension liabilities.

Kirk, 52, a longtime Chicago newsman who serendipitously shares a name with the captain of the Starship Enterprise, joined tronc only last August as senior vice president of strategic initiatives, but quickly found himself in the role of troubleshooter.

He trekked to LA last summer to steer the Times after Maharaj’s abrupt departure amid a bloody purge of newsroom managers, and stayed until publisher Ross Levinsohn (who was suspended last week, and placed under investigation, over sexual harassment allegations) named digital magazine denizen Lewis D’Vorkin as the Times’ top editor.

D’Vorkin was also removed last week—and kicked upstairs to the vaguely defined position of tronc’s chief content officer—after a mere three months of doing everything possible to alienate his newsroom, fostering an atmosphere of rage and paranoia.

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Earlier this month, Kirk was dispatched to New York to take over temporarily at the Daily News (Jim Rich’s former job) after the December retirement of Rich’s successor, Arthur Browne—and served in that role for a mere 11 days before being dispatched back to L.A. this past Monday to take the helm.

It was either, ‘You’re editor in chief and you don’t know anything about the new content strategy at your company,’ or ‘You’re just lying to us.’ Either way, you’re not looking good.

So far, his arrival has been well-received by Times journalists, who on Jan. 4 voted overwhelmingly to unionize after D’Vorkin, the former digital guru of Forbes magazine, spent three months apparently creating a shadow digital newsroom separate from the editorial staff—relying on contract workers and unpaid contributors—and was accused of shrouding the cost-cutting project in secrecy. Times investigative journalists pored over tronc’s SEC filings in an attempt to figure out the mystery.

When asked by staffers what was going on, D’Vorkin professed ignorance and directed them to publisher Levinsohn, according to a well-informed newsroom source, who added: “It was either, 'You’re editor in chief and you don’t know anything about the new content strategy at your company,' or 'You’re just lying to us.' Either way, you’re not looking good.”

Soon after assuming leadership in November, D’Vorkin reportedly declined to defend Times’ journalism after the paper chronicled how the Walt Disney Co. was receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in unprecedented financial benefits from the taxpayers of Anaheim, the home of Disneyland, and Disney retaliated by banning Times film critics from its screenings. (Under pressure from other news organizations, which vowed to boycott critics’ screenings in support of the Times, Disney has since rescinded the ban, but still doesn’t cooperate with Times business reporters.)

Instead of protesting, D’Vorkin minimized the clash between the paper and the media and entertainment behemoth as a trivial spat and is perceived to have made nice in a private chat with Disney execs; ironically, Disney owns a prominent news organization, ABC News, and former ABC anchor Willow Bay, the wife of Disney chairman and chief executive Bob Iger, was named dean last year of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where detractors predictably have nicknamed her “Will Obey.”

D’Vorkin also threatened Times journalists’ jobs and accused underlings of “moral bankruptcy” while conducting a leak investigation after NPR and the New York Times obtained audio recordings of his contentious meetings with reporters and editors.

In an incident last week that galvanized the newsroom against him, D’Vorkin suspended the paper’s respected financial editor, Kimi Yoshino, for unexplained reasons—ordering her escorted out of the building by security without allowing her to turn off her laptop or retrieve her belongings. 

Meanwhile, on Jan. 19, the same day the newspaper guild announced the result of the union vote, tronc benched Ross Levinsohn; it was the day after NPR media reporter David Folkenflik reported that the publisher had presided over a sexist “frat house” environment, made bigoted remarks about LGBTQ people, and had been a defendant in sexual harassment lawsuits at media companies where he’d previously served in executive positions.

On Monday, in a hastily-called newsroom meeting shortly after landing at LAX, Jim Kirk was greeted by applause when a Times columnist asked if he’d ever been accused of sexual harassment, and Kirk tersely answered: “No.”

According to the account in the Times, Kirk told nearly 200 staffers: “I want to start fresh and bring this newsroom together. There has been too much not-togetherness in the past few months, and if we want to be successful, that has to change.”

Kirk also pledged to negotiate in good faith with the freshly-organized newsroom union: “The union is here. The goal is to work together to get a good contract.”

We have a lot—a lot—of questions. As journalists, we are constantly demanding transparency from other people. We don’t think it’s too much to ask for our company to be transparent with us.

Times staff writer Carolina A. Miranda, a member of the guild organizing committee, told The Daily Beast in a statement: “We certainly welcome Jim's hire. We get the sense that he cares about news and about journalism, which is really important to us.”

But she added that the newsroom has serious concerns, especially about tronc’s reported plans for a digital journalism operation separate from the traditional chain of command.

“We have a lot—a lot—of questions,” she wrote. “As journalists, we are constantly demanding transparency from other people. We don’t think it’s too much to ask for our company to be transparent with us. What we want is to be partners in this. We understand that the Times will need to evolve to remain sustainable. We know that at the end of the day, we can’t ignore the money question. But we want to be a part of the process rather than outside of it.”

If possible, the Daily News has suffered even greater shocks in recent days than the Times. Jim Rich is returning to a newspaper that has endured one near-death experience after another as Zuckerman tried to unload it and for months found no buyers, while sustaining mushrooming losses, painful staff cuts (down to 85 fulltime newsroom employees, according to New York Post media writer Keith Kelly), withering daily newsstand  sales (more than 700,000 in Kosner’s day, now a feeble 187,000), and rudderless leadership.

While the Daily News has just announced plans to impose a metered paywall after 10 free articles starting Feb. 1, rumors abound that tronc ultimately will cease the print-on-paper tabloid and go all-internet, à la the Daily Mail’s popular Mail Online operation in the United States.

Even more troubling, the newsroom is reeling from the unpaid suspensions of two senior editors—news managing editor Rob Moore and Sunday editor Alexander “Doc” Jones—over horrific workplace sexual harassment claims revealed in a lurid Jan. 26 HuffPost report.

Moore, by most accounts a talented editor and rising star at the Daily News, allegedly harassed female underlings, showed employees photos of women he claimed to have had sex with while he boasted explicitly about his sexual exploits, was personally cruel and abusive, and bragged about firing employees who complained about his conduct to human resources.

Moore didn’t respond to voice messages seeking comment that were left on his office and cell phones.

“Doc” Jones, meanwhile, was escorted from the newsroom by a human resources official last Thursday as HuffPost was reporting that he harassed young female reporters, “includ[ing] multiple incidents of forcible kissing, [while] five employees told us that Jones had a penchant for bringing young women to his side of the newsroom for the sole purpose of ogling them.”

According to an informed Daily News source, Jim Rich had been aware of Jones’ workplace misconduct, and was thwarted by upper management in an attempt to fire Jones during his first tour as editor in chief in 2016.

There’s probably no more powerful advocate for the interests of everyday New Yorkers than the Daily News. Its voice is simply irreplaceable.

Rich, who had toiled as sports editor, night news editor and executive editor before getting the top job the first time around, knew that Moore could be harsh and unpleasant with underlings—in the celebrated tradition of hard-driving tabloid editors—but he was unaware of allegations of sexually charged misconduct, the source said, adding that Rich made it a condition of his taking the editor in chief’s job that neither of the suspended managers would be brought back to work in his newsroom.

“There’s probably no more powerful advocate for the interests of everyday New Yorkers than the Daily News. Its voice is simply irreplaceable,” said former Daily News investigative reporter Sarah Ryley, now of The Trace nonprofit outlet, who won last year’s Public Service Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s eye-popping series, in collaboration with ProPublica, exposing the New York Police Department’s abuses of “nuisance abatement” actions to force people out of their homes even when they’re not convicted of crimes.

“It has been hard on everyone to watch the newsroom shrink over the years, but the remaining journalists are fierce fighters and they still put out important work every day,” Ryley added. “The hope, of course, is for that work to expand with new investment from tronc and the return of Jim Rich, who was always particularly passionate about social justice issues.

“I worked under him almost my entire time at the News and he was always a huge supporter of my investigations into the NYPD. And he always treated me with nothing but complete respect. So I do feel his return will be good for the newsroom. I wish him and everyone at the News the best of luck.”