The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that, two years after it reverted to local ownership, it is facing a painful internal reckoning over glaring deficiencies and missteps regarding race and representation in its pages and its staff.
Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine heard from aggrieved newsroom staff members Wednesday during a more than four-hour meeting examining the mistreatment of Black and brown editorial staff members past and present, the newspaper reported in a 2,700-word article. He acknowledged that the 138-year-old paper had failed to capitalize on an unprecedented opportunity to better diversify its newsroom since its 2018 purchase by the L.A. biotech billionaire, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, and his wife, Michele B. Chan.
Wednesday’s meeting was conducted by Zoom videoconference because staffers have been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. It came three weeks into a raw and deeply emotional self-examination that has unfolded on internal communications channels, a wide-ranging discussion about the paper’s news coverage and treatment of people of color. Emboldened by The Times’ first newsroom union contract, staff members have openly chastised senior editors for allowing racial disparities to persist.
“We all saw the river of white people coming into your office,” staff writer Esmeralda Bermudez said in a voice sometimes breaking with emotion, while directing one of the strongest critiques at Pearlstine and his hiring practices. Bermudez and others said that The Times missed chances to hire or retain staff members of color even as it embarked on a hiring spree in the initial period after Soon-Shiong’s purchase.
“We have work to do to convince you that this is just the beginning,” Pearlstine said. “It’s a great opportunity to fix things that have been wrong for a long time.”
After the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, journalists around the country have engaged in similar emotionally wrenching discussions about ingrained practices that have marginalized people of color.
At the New York Times, more than 800 staff members signed a petition protesting the publication of an opinion piece by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, calling for the military to be sent into U.S. cities at the height of the protests sparked by Floyd’s killing. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, the top editor resigned after a column ran with the headline: “Buildings Matter, Too.”
“Our entire industry is going through this reckoning: How do we root out the anti-Black racism from our organization and from our coverage?” L.A. Times Deputy Managing Editor Shani Hilton said in an interview. “How do we stop the tides of white supremacy that invade, not only what we do, but all of society?”
At The Times, years of ownership turmoil, a revolving door of managers, hundreds of staff cuts and a protracted bankruptcy process a decade ago reinforced an internal hierarchy that put people of color at a disadvantage. It created a tiered newsroom, where veteran editors and reporters, who are largely white, have relied on a secondary class of primarily younger, less-experienced Latino, Asian and Black reporters who are paid significantly less than older counterparts, internal critics said, according to The Times.
During its bleakest days, from 2014 to 2018, the paper relied heavily on a long line of young journalists of color to fill its thinning ranks and respond to major breaking news events such as wildfires and mass shootings.
In 2018, The Times was rescued by Soon-Shiong and Chan. They paid $500 million to buy The Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing. The Times went on an unprecedented hiring spree, bringing on 110 additional journalists.
Thursday, The Times newsroom employs 502 journalists, but it is 61% white, even though Los Angeles County’s population is 26% white, according to 2018 census information. Latinos represent just 13% of the newsroom in a county where Latinos make up nearly half of the population. The paper’s composition of Asian American journalists mirrors the county’s population at nearly 15%. But the paper has just 26 Black journalists — 5.2% of its staff — while nearly 8% of county residents are Black.
And there is only one Black reporter — Angel Jennings — in local news, Metro, the newsroom’s largest section.