Editorial: The Good Place

There’s a comedy show on NBC called “The Good Place” about a group of recently-deceased people who wake up in the afterlife thinking they’re in heaven, but as it turns out (SPOILER ALERT), they’re actually in the Bad Place. It’s an experiment designed by a demonic architect (played by Ted Danson) whose goal is to make the occupants’ afterlives as miserable as possible. Although their “good place” ended up being an illusion, they also found out a real “good place” did exist. The goal now was to get there.

For the Los Angeles Times staff, they may have found their “good place” in June when the paper returned to local ownership after 18 years. Los Angeles billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the Times, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based tronc. On the day the sale was finalized, Soon-Shiong was met with applause and cheers in the newsroom, where he also introduced Norman Pearlstine as the paper’s new executive editor. Pearlstine spent 50 years in journalism working at publications like the Wall Street Journal, Time Inc. and Forbes. He was also an advisor to Soon-Shiong during the transition plan.

Despite these changes (including moving the newsroom last month to El Segundo, a city 20 miles away from its longtime downtown location), the Times seems to be embracing this new era.

Those in the industry know it hasn’t always been that way. In 2016, when Michael Ferro became the largest shareholder of tronc (then called Tribune Publishing, although it’s been reported that tronc is returning to its former moniker), it sent the company into a tailspin. First, the company combined the editor-publisher positions across all its papers; it spent most of 2016 rejecting bids to sell to Gannett until Gannett finally gave up; and it rebranded itself as a “content curation and monetization company” that Ferro ambitiously thought should be making 2,000 videos a day, thanks to artificial intelligence.

The following year wasn’t any better. In Los Angeles, tronc pushed editor-publisher Davan Maharaj, along with several other senior editors, out the door. Former Yahoo executive Ross Levinsohn was named publisher and Lewis D’Vorkin of Forbes was named editor-in-chief. In less than a year, both men were gone.

Now that I’ve caught you up, you can probably understand why the Times welcomed Soon-Shiong with open arms. To some of those employees, Ferro was the architect who deceived them into believing they were in the “good place.” But they quickly realized they were not.

Earlier this year, the Times newsroom voted for the first time in its 136-year-old history to form a union. Kristina Bui, Times copy editor and guild organizer, told E&P in May that it was the hiring of Levinsohn and D’Vorkin that made them realize tronc “did not have their best interests at heart.”

From what I’ve read on Soon-Shiong, he seems to be the complete opposite. “We will continue our papers’ dedication to truth, integrity, journalistic independence, and storytelling that engages, informs, educates and inspires with care and compassion,” he wrote to readers in a full page ad the weekend before the sale was finalized.

Pearlstine also seemed optimistic about Soon-Shiong’s abilities to run a newspaper. “Whenever somebody comes to a field like media from another place, you always want to make sure they fully understand what they’ve gotten involved in,” he told the Columbia Journalism Review. “His ability to both operate at 50,000 feet and then, somewhat annoyingly, to be very granular in his sort of deconstruction of everything from staffing to beats and so forth has just been remarkable.”

I don’t know if you want to call this the honeymoon phase; we’ve seen our share of billionaires save newspapers, but we’ve also seen some that have burned out. I’m still curious to see where Soon-Shiong takes his newly-formed California News Group. Let’s hope it’s to a good place.

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Published: August 3, 2018

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