Trying to Turn the Page on Turmoil

Posted January 29, 2018 9:19 p.m. EST
Updated January 29, 2018 9:26 p.m. EST

The embattled newspaper company Tronc moved Monday to calm rising tensions at publications on both coasts, announcing that it had named new top editors at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News.

Jim Kirk, the former editor and publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, took over as the editor-in-chief of the Times, and Jim Rich, who previously served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily News, would return to that role.

The announcement of Kirk’s new position confirmed a New York Times report on Sunday that he would assume the job held by Lewis D’Vorkin, a former chief product officer at Forbes who was not a popular figure in the newsroom during a tenure that lasted less than three months.

D’Vorkin will stay on at Tronc as its chief content officer, a role that involves establishing new products to distribute its journalism.

In an interview on Sunday night, Kirk, 52, conveyed a willingness to improve morale and calm the tensions between managers and Times journalists. “My message to the newsroom will be that we will be working together as one team starting tomorrow to do the best work we can,” he said.

Rich, who served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily News for a 13-month period that ended in 2016, will return to his former post Wednesday, Tronc said. Most recently, he was the executive editor of HuffPost, a job he left in December, when he said he planned to start a nonprofit news site.

During his last stint at the tabloid, Rich, 46, distinguished himself with attention-grabbing headlines that excoriated Republican leaders. After Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary during the 2016 presidential campaign, for instance, the Daily News front page included an image of the candidate in clown makeup with the headline “Dawn of the Brain Dead — Trump comes back to life with N.H. win.”

Rich, whose departure from the Daily News in 2016 shocked staff members, will take over for Arthur Browne, who retired at the end of December. In a statement announcing the changes, Justin C. Dearborn, the chief executive of Tronc, said, “We are continuing to invest in high quality journalism, which will always be the company’s top priority.” He called Kirk a “talented news veteran” and Rich “a well-established media professional.”

Tronc, which publishes newspapers including the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun, is trying to leave behind a bruising period marked by rising turmoil in the newsrooms of the Daily News and the Times.

The Daily News, which Tronc acquired in September from the real estate and media mogul Mortimer B. Zuckerman, recently suspended its managing editor, Rob Moore, and its Sunday editor, Alexander Jones, because of sexual harassment allegations made against them by current and former employees.

At the Times, Ross Levinsohn, who was named publisher in August, was put on leave after National Public Radio published an article that detailed sexual harassment allegations made against him while he worked at other companies. On the same day, the newsroom announced that it had voted to unionize by an overwhelming margin — a move that followed years of discontent.

Tronc vetted Levinsohn, a former Yahoo executive, before he was hired as the Times’ publisher, but company executives were not aware that he had twice been a defendant in sexual harassment lawsuits while employed by other companies, according to two people briefed on the matter who were not permitted to speak publicly about it.

The fallout from the NPR report on the allegations against Levinsohn, which was published Jan. 18, reached beyond Tronc on Monday, when Tribune Media disclosed in a regulatory filing that Levinsohn had notified the company last week that he was taking leave from its corporate board. (Tribune Media and Tronc, formerly called Tribune Publishing, had been one corporation, Tribune Co., before a spinoff of the newspaper business in 2014.) Kirk joined Tronc in August and became a jack-of-all-trades for the company, serving as the interim executive editor of the Times and the interim editor-in-chief of The Daily News. His new appointment was largely met with a sense of relief within the Times newsroom but also a recognition that his appointment will not undo years of frustration among employees or rid the paper of its underlying financial challenges.

The man he replaced, D’Vorkin, faced suspicion in the newsroom almost from his arrival, partly because of his previous role at Forbes, where he broadened the company’s native advertising offerings and introduced a product that allowed advertisers to contribute material alongside Forbes articles. Newsroom skeptics feared that he would focus more on clicks and advertising innovations than quality journalism.

Tronc executives decided to move D’Vorkin, 65, out of the top newsroom job at a time when they were also revisiting a companywide reorganization plan, according to two company officials briefed on the discussions. The proposal seemed intended to cut costs and increase the emphasis on making Tronc’s journalism better suited to digital media. Levinsohn, the publisher now on leave, was a main architect of the restructuring plan. But the plan is now in flux, according to the two people.

Levinsohn’s leave came at the end of an aggressive attempt by Times management to thwart the newsroom’s ultimately successful union drive — a campaign that occurred as the paper’s editors and reporters were distinguishing themselves with aggressive coverage of sexual harassment in Hollywood and natural disasters in California.

Tensions between the paper’s employees and its management team had been rising since a dispute between the Times and the Walt Disney Co. After Disney banned Times journalists from attending advance film screenings following the publication of an investigative series on the company’s ties to the city of Anaheim, some people in the newsroom questioned how D’Vorkin had handled the paper’s response. During a staff meeting, after learning that a recording of an earlier meeting had been leaked to a New York Times reporter, D’Vorkin said that anyone involved with the act was “morally bankrupt,” according to several people in attendance. His admonition further escalated the divide between employees and management.

Several journalists at the Times said they worried that the company, eager to stanch the steady stream of reports other news organizations were publishing about it, had begun monitoring their phones and computers in pursuit of leaks. Two journalists said they had been warned that the company was monitoring employees’ emails.

In a statement, Tronc said that it was committed to respecting employees’ privacy. “There’s never to our knowledge been a situation where the company is monitoring people’s emails,” the company said.

The tensions intensified this past week, when the business editor, Kimi Yoshino, was abruptly suspended without a public explanation. In a note to D’Vorkin that was widely circulated on social media, Times employees wrote that Yoshino was “asked to take a leave of absence and not even permitted to return to her office to collect her belongings and turn off her laptop.”

“We are deeply troubled by the way this situation is being handled,” they wrote.

Times journalists also said they were concerned by what they had learned of the reorganization plan — which seemed to be the subject of a presentation given by Levinsohn to investors earlier this month that described a “Los Angeles Times Network.”

Under the proposal, newly hired editors would supervise reporting that could be fed to all Tronc publications, according to several people briefed on the potential restructuring.

That system, two of these people said, would include the creation of sites that would generate their own revenue. It would rely on Tronc employees and outside contributors who are not part of any existing Tronc newsroom. In recent weeks, newsroom employees were puzzled to discover the names of several apparently newly hired editors in an internal human resources database, an image of which was shared with The New York Times. Among them were Bruce Upbin, formerly of Forbes, who was listed as an assistant managing editor; Sylvester Monroe, formerly an editor at The Washington Post, who was also listed as an assistant managing editor; and Louise Story, a former New York Times reporter and editor who was listed as a managing editor.

Story has since decided not to join Tronc, writing in an emailed statement, “I had agreed to work at Tronc and at the Los Angeles Times in very high-level managerial roles. But, as a result of recent significant changes in those roles, I decided not to work there in any capacity.”

In the internal database, the new hires were shown under Rob Angel, the chief of business development at the Times, but are now expected to report to D’Vorkin, according to a person at Tronc familiar with the personnel decision.

Since Levinsohn went on leave, Tronc and Times executives met in Chicago to discuss which parts of the restructuring plan could continue, according to the people familiar with the discussions.

The recent unrest has its roots in the frustration that Times employees had with previous leaders. Last year, some grew critical of several top managers — including Davan Maharaj, the editor and publisher — in part over the handling of an investigation into the former dean of the medical school at the University of Southern California. Tronc removed Maharaj and several other newsroom leaders in August, saying that the Times had failed to transform fast enough on the digital side.

Many employees expressed optimism that the D’Vorkin-Levinsohn team would foster the kind of journalism that has garnered the paper more than 40 Pulitzer Prizes. Now they are looking toward a new leader.

The Los Angeles Times Guild congratulated Kirk in a statement. “We also look forward to working together in the future as one team — and we look forward to hearing his plans for the paper.”

Kirk said that his goal as the top editor at The Times was to “double down our great coverage of California and Los Angeles and beyond.”

“That’s what readers expect from us, and we want to continue that,” he added.