Does turmoil at the Los Angeles Times foreshadow far deeper trouble for the paper's smaller San Diego sister, the Union-Tribune?
That's the fear of local news insiders, eyes glued to the latest fast-moving drama that has engulfed the Times and its Chicago-based owner tronc in little more than a week.
On January 19, the National Labor Relations Board announced that the freshly formed Los Angeles Times Guild had won a landslide 244-44 vote to unionize the paper's staff, something that labor had been unable to do since the Times was founded in 1881.
The day before, National Public Radio aired a lengthy exposé of Times publisher Ross Levinsohn, reporting he had been the defendant in two sexual harassment suits and accused of inappropriate behavior at previous jobs. Levinsohn went on unpaid leave pending an in-house investigation.
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Now comes word, first reported by newspaper business analyst and blogger Ken Doctor on January 28, that recently installed Times editor Lewis D’Vorkin has been kicked upstairs, replaced with Jim Kirk, previously tapped by tronc to edit its newly acquired New York Daily News.
D’Vorkin was the subject of a lengthy January 24 Columbia Journalism Review post headlined, “The L.A. Times’ Prince of Darkness." Among other issues of controversy, the item recounted the editor's advocacy of a so-called unpaid contributor model, along with creating closer ties between advertising and stories, known as branded content.
Fueling the tempest was a January 26 dispatch from Doctor describing how tronc had quietly started a new operation separate from the existing L.A. paper called the Los Angeles Times Network LLC.
"So far, about a dozen newer employees, some first hired in November, appear to be working for the new entity," wrote Doctor, adding, "Even as last week unfolded, Times staffers were increasingly asking about the new hires, whose faces and titles they saw. Who were they? What would they do? Whose jobs might they take?”
The same day, the Huffington Post provided a putative answer, headlined, "Tronc Is Building a Shadow Newsroom Full of Scabs, L.A. Times Staffers Fear."
Per that account, a mysterious raft of newly recruited writers and editors were "working on the second floor, despite the newsroom being on the third. And, of course, there was the bizarre fact that they had yet to be introduced to any of the actual newsroom staff of about 400."
The recently unionized Times employees, according to the Huffington Post item, "worry this is a precursor to layoffs for the union staffers, whom Tronc seems to be actively making redundant. Another possibility is that Tronc will focus on building up a non-union workforce under NewCo and kill the union through attrition."
A January 25 letter from the union to Times management fleshed out the concerns: "News reports detail the prospect of troubling unilateral changes that would directly and negatively impact Guild bargaining unit work and the scope of bargaining unit work, including the elimination and/or subcontracting of unit work," wrote Guild representative Darren Carroll.
"Given the timing of these reports to the Guild’s organizing campaign and overwhelming victory, we would regard any decision to unilaterally implement such plans as facially reflective of anti-union animus and would pursue any and all necessary legal remedies."
According to Doctor, the Times and the Union-Tribune together constitute half of tronc's revenue. The company's shrinking cash flow will likely be a point of discussion at tronc's upcoming fourth-quarter report to investment analysts.
In light of a bevy of vanishing U-T advertisers, including big furniture and car retailers, locals aren't sanguine that San Diego's cash-generating machine can continue to make the same contribution as in the past. They fear the chain may soon lay off local writers, their output to be replaced by copy from the new Los Angeles Times Network and free bloggers.