Wanted: Rich Patron for the Once-Great L.A. Times
When the news broke late last month that Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs's philanthropy, was buying a majority stake in the Atlantic, I felt a twinge of disappointment. On the one hand, the Atlantic under David Bradley, who bought it in 1999, has done the best job of any monthly magazine of transitioning to the digital age. It is today a publication brimming with vitality and urgency, and no doubt that Powell Jobs's money will help keep it that way for a good long time.
On the other hand, ever since Emerson began making media investments last year, 1 I had been hoping that Powell Jobs would buy a different media property, one that needs a lot more help than the Atlantic. I was hoping she would swoop in and save the Los Angeles Times from the people who thought it was a stroke of business genius to give Tribune Publishing the new name Tronc.
Like most of the great American newspapers, the Los Angeles Times was once owned by a family, the Chandlers, who helped create modern Los Angeles. Otis Chandler, the publisher of the Times from 1960 to 1980, was determined to make it a great newspaper, and he succeeded.
During Watergate, the L.A. Times competed vigorously with its rivals in New York and Washington. Its Hollywood coverage was untouchable. In David Shaw, it had one of the country's first media writers; in Jim Murray it had one of its greatest sportswriters. It had bureaus around the world and a newsroom that numbered, at its peak, over 1,000 journalists. It won its share of Pulitzer Prizes.
Today, while the L.A. Times still has its moments, it's not close to what it once was. It's not just that bureaus have been closed and the newsroom has gone through multiple rounds of buyouts and layoffs. It's that the Times has lost its sense of mission, its vision of what its role should be. My own view is that the country needs the Los Angeles Times to be great again—to offer a West Coast alternative to the perspective of the New York Times and the resurgent Washington Post. It needs to reclaim California as its territory while going toe-to-toe with its rivals for national stories, the way it did during the 1970s and 1980s. None of which will ever happen so long as it is owned by Tronc.
What brings this to mind was the news on Monday that Tronc had fired four top editors, including Davan Maharaj, who was serving as both publisher and editor-in-chief. Maharaj was replaced with a new publisher, Ross Levinsohn, and an interim editor, Jim Kirk. Levinsohn is the Times's eighth publisher since Tronc bought the paper in 2000 and its fourth in the last two years. Kirk, meanwhile, had joined Tronc six days earlier as a senior vice president for strategic initiatives when he was handed the reins at the L.A. Times. Not exactly stability-inducing.
Brian Stelter of CNN described Levinsohn as a "former Yahoo and Fox Interactive Media executive." He did indeed spend several years at Yahoo! Inc., three months of that time as chief executive until he was pushed aside for Marissa Mayer. As for his tenure at Fox, his primary accomplishment was leading the team that bought the social network MySpace just a few years before it was overwhelmed by Facebook. (He also worked at AltaVista, a search engine that no longer exists.)
Levinsohn, of course, said all the right things, just as his predecessors had. "The L.A. Times is a bastion of great journalism," he told Meg James, the paper's corporate media reporter. "My aspiration is to draw upon the incredible amount of work that has been done here and broaden it."
Tronc's CEO, Justin Dearborn, said: "We still obviously need to do a great job here in California. There are certain areas we are going to double-down on. Ross isn't coming in to oversee further downsizing." But, he added: "We all have to work within budgets. We are a public company."
Which is precisely the problem. Tronc is an unusually inept public company with very little cash. But even if it were well run, it would still be a struggle to restore the Los Angeles Times to its former glory of the pre-internet age.
The newspapers that are doing well today are owned not by public companies but by wealthy, civic-minded individuals. (The big exception is the New York Times Co., which remains publicly traded while firmly under family control. 2 ) John Henry, who owns the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool soccer club in England's Premier League, bought the Boston Globe in 2013 for $70 million.
That same year the Washington Post was sold to Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, for $250 million. Both papers are dramatically better, especially the Post. Their owners have provided them resources, but have also understood the importance of letting reporters do their work free from meddling. I have no doubt that both Henry and Bezos want to make a profit, but unlike a publicly traded company, profit is not their only motive, or even their primary one.
There have been several attempts to pry the Los Angeles Times away from Tronc. Eli Broad, the Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist, was said to have made some inquiries in 2015. And late last year, a Los Angeles-based medical entrepreneur named Patrick Soon-Shiong, who is a large Tronc shareholder, offered to buy the Times. He was brusquely rebuffed by Tronc's chairman, Michael Ferro.
You can see why Tronc wouldn't want to give up the L.A. Times. Without it, all it is has is the Chicago Tribune and a handful of middling papers. It wouldn't be much of a company.
But the Bloomberg Billionaires Index says that Laurene Powell Jobs is worth $18 billion. The L.A. Times, the media analyst Ken Doctor told me, is probably worth around $250 million. Were Powell Jobs, or someone like her, willing to give Tronc a healthy premium, I bet she could land it.
It's the best hope this once-great paper has.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
In addition to the Atlantic, Emerson Collective's other media investments include Axios, the online news site, and Gimlet Media, the podcast company.
The Sulzberger family owns most of the voting stock and has long treated their Times more like a family enterprise than a shareholder-driven company.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at firstname.lastname@example.org