The Los Angeles Times has selected Kevin Merida as its new top editor, bringing to an end a months-long search and signaling the paper’s intention to address internal criticism of its staffing decisions and coverage of race in the Golden State.
Merida, 64, an ESPN executive and newspaper industry veteran, will be the Times’ new executive editor, according to an internal memo sent to staffers by the paper’s president and chief operating officer Chris Argentieri, obtained and reviewed by The Daily Beast. Over the past several years, as a senior vice president Merida, who is Black, has overseen The Undefeated, ESPN’s blog covering the intersections of sports, race, and culture.
“I am excited to be the next executive editor of the L.A. Times, and will bring with me an open heart, a penchant for experimentation and a fiercely competitive spirit,” Merida said in a statement provided in the memo. “Looking forward to partnering with new colleagues and soaring to greater heights together.”
“We are elated to welcome Kevin to the Los Angeles Times,” added the paper’s owners Patrick and Michele Soon-Shiong. “Kevin possesses a clear understanding of the rigor necessary for independent journalism and how to translate that journalism to multiple platforms. He also shares our passion for the unique opportunity we have to build the L.A. Times into a media enterprise with a distinct West Coast point of view.”
Over the past several months, Merida’s name has been floated for many of the top jobs available in journalism, including as the replacement for Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, who retired earlier this year after nearly a decade atop the paper. Merida, the co-author of a biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is married to longtime syndicated columnist Donna Britt, worked as a reporter for The Dallas Morning News and The Milwaukee Journal, and as a reporter and in various senior editor jobs at the Post prior to joining ESPN, at one point working as the D.C. paper’s managing editor.
But industry insiders have expected for months that Merida would more likely be selected to replace Norman Pearlstine, the former executive editor who stepped down from his Los Angeles Times post at the end of last year.
“Kevin’s a deeply experienced journalist—a great reporter who covered important beats at The Washington Post, a really talented writer, and an excellent editor,” former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. told The Daily Beast. “He was an excellent editor of writing and an excellent mentor to journalists… He’s also shown that he’s an incredible entrepreneur by going off and doing what he’s done [at ESPN]... He’s all-around an outstanding person to be an executive editor of a newspaper, particularly a newspaper that’s going through change.”
Downie added that Merida’s “dedication to covering minority communities goes way back in his career and something in which he played an important role at The Washington Post,” especially the hiring and development of Black journalists. “He’s a calming influence,” Downie said. “He’s able to lead and be a calming influence at the same time—someone that I and other members of the staff would frequently go to if we had problems we wanted to have solved on the staff.”
Former Los Angeles Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who currently leads the newsroom at The New York Times, seconded Downie’s praise.
“I think they made a really good choice,” Baquet said about Merida’s new role. “It’s a great paper, and I think he will be just a terrific editor for them. As somebody who cares about the place”—a newspaper from which Baquet resigned after clashing with its previous owners, the Tribune Co., over budget cuts, among other issues—“I’m thrilled for them and for him.”
Merida’s hiring comes as the paper has reckoned with controversy over its past coverage of non-white communities in Southern California and internal criticism over a lack of diversity and mobility for Black, Latino, and Asian staffers.
The murder of George Floyd last year prompted many Times staffers to voice concerns about some of the paper’s previous coverage decisions—including what some employees described as “dehumanizing” reporting on nonwhite communities—and criticize management for failing during a recent hiring spree to enlist and promote nonwhite candidates for key newsroom roles.
Merida is no stranger to grappling with such issues. When he joined ESPN from The Post in October 2015, The Undefeated had been suffering from reputational issues and a lack of direction that its new editor-in-chief ultimately addressed, giving the blog the sense of mission it had previously lacked.
And despite the Disney Co. and ESPN upper management’s stated aversion to covering politics as a part of sports, Merida managed to walk a delicate line to assert editorial independence and essentially ignore that internal edict.
“Kevin is what I call a journalist’s journalist,” former ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, who worked closely with Merida at The Undefeated, told The Daily Beast. Unlike many executives in the television industry, “Kevin was accustomed to working in newsrooms and there was a certain relatability there that I hadn’t had with a lot of people in a supervisory position at ESPN,” said Hill, a former newspaper reporter who famously tangled with ESPN management—and Donald Trump’s White House—over her tweets asserting that the 45th president was a white supremacist. “From that standpoint, it was a welcome relief.”
Hill added that when Merida took over The Undefeated, “they had undergone a lot of volatility, and the product had taken a lot of hits from a reputation standpoint. And Kevin’s being associated with it immediately gave The Undefeated a new image. He gave it not just the order but the respectability and journalistic credibility that it needed.”
Hill, now a writer for The Atlantic, said the Los Angeles Times “is undergoing a racial reckoning.”
Baquet, who like Hill is also Black, said Merida is the right person to address those issues. “I think he’s a guy who has run big stuff before, he’s experienced, and one of his great strengths is to lead and to work with people, and to make them feel good about their work.”
The paper’s ownership signaled at the time that it was taking the issues raised by staff seriously.
For example, as The Daily Beast reported earlier this year, Nika Soon-Shiong, a local community activist and the daughter of the Times’ billionaire owners, reached out to the paper’s Black and Latino staff caucuses and has actively tried to participate in conversations between her family and employees about how to address the ongoing concerns.
Times staffers commended Merida’s hiring on Monday, with the paper’s guild saying in a statement, “We congratulate Kevin Merida on his selection as editor in chief of the Los Angeles Times, and we commend Dr. Soon-Shiong and Ms. Chan on the successful conclusion of their search for Norm Pearlstine’s replacement. Our members expect leaders with uncompromising commitments to quality, integrity and fairness, and we look forward to meeting with Kevin soon to hear his vision for the continued restoration of The Times. There is work to be done. We’re ready to partner with our new editor to get it done together.”