“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the philosopher George Santayana warned more than a century ago. Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the L.A. biotech billionaire who this week acquired the Los Angeles Times, may come to regret ignoring that wisdom.
Soon-Shiong on Monday announced that he’s appointed veteran New York journalist Norm Pearlstine to oversee the once proud publication and restore some of its former glory. Pearlstine’s bona fides are impressive as they come: Stints at leading New York-based business media organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Bloomberg. He also served as chief content officer at Time Inc., which once had a stable of more than 150 magazine titles, including Time, People, Sports Illustrated and Fortune. Not surprisingly, Pearlstine’s appointment has been applauded by his fellow East Coast Establishment journalists.
But Angelenos with long memories — or with basic Google skills — may sense something eerily familiar about Pearlstine’s appointment. It was the hiring of acclaimed East Coast editors nearly two decades ago that precipitated the downward spiral of the Times, a period of history the Times has rewritten or faultily remembers.
As recounted in a 2005 New Yorker article by Ken Auletta, the Times when it was owned by the Chandler family was a world class publication with bureaus across the U.S. and around the world. But it was fundamentally a “cops and courts” newspaper, devoting considerable resources and space to local news. The newspaper spoke with a distinct L.A. voice and the editors and reporters working there knew the local territory.
In 2000, Chicago-based Tribune company — in those days a highly-regarded newspaper chain — acquired the Times and other venerable publications. The company installed New York-born John Carroll, who previously oversaw the Baltimore Sun, to oversee the Times; Carroll hired Dean Baquet, then the New York Times’ national editor, as his deputy. Media pundits widely applauded these hires as well.
Carroll and Baquet immediately set out to transform the Times into a West Coast version of the New York Times, emphasizing investigative reporting and cutting back significantly on local coverage. They gutted the Orange County bureau from 200 reporters to 20, dismissing the coverage as “marketing.” They also brought in a slew of other prominent East Coast editors and fired veteran journalists with longstanding ties to L.A. and California. Five years into his tenure, Baquet unashamedly told the New Yorker, “We still haven’t mastered making the paper feel like it is edited in Los Angeles.”
Under Carroll and Baquet, the Times was awarded scores of Pulitzer Prizes. An investigative piece from their era impressively presaged the #metoo movement: In 2003, the Times reported that Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the front-runner in a gubernatorial recall election, repeatedly groped and humiliated women. While Carroll and Baquet impressed their journalist friends back east, the Times under their leadership lost about 10 percent of its readers. Not surprisingly, the Tribune company began demanding significant cutbacks, which Carroll and Baquet resisted. Among journalists, Carroll and Baquet are still heralded as martyrs for quitting rather than executing all the Tribune’s requested bloodletting.
The Times on Sunday allowed Baquet, now the executive editor of the New York Times, to trash the Tribune management that installed Carroll and him as “really terrible owners.” But he didn’t mention his own culpability, including alienating readers by significantly cutting back on local news. Incredulously, Baquet appeared on CNN in April to declare that the “biggest crisis” facing journalism “is the decline of local journalism.” Under his watch, the New York Times also has decimated its local news coverage, including eliminating three weekly sections focused on New Jersey, Connecticut and Westchester County.
As for Pearlstine, he’s reportedly a likeable and engaging guy who will quickly win over the Times newsroom and L.A.’s cultural elite. To his credit, he’s on record as saying, “It would be a huge mistake to try and be a clone of any East Coast paper.” But Pearlstine, 75, has no experience running a local daily and seemingly has no real ties to L.A. or California. If his Twitter account is any indication, he’s not accomplished in social media engagement; Pearlstine has only 343 followers, he last tweeted on January 25, and, at this writing four days after his announced appointment, still lists himself as vice chair of Time Inc., a company that no longer exists.
Times reporters heralded Pearlstine’s arrival with the popping of champagne bottles and declaring the sale of the newspaper the end of a “20-year war” under carpetbagger ownership. But, again, if history is any indication, they are naïve believing things can’t get worse. Time magazine declared morale at the Times in the late 1990s as being at an “all-time low” when a former General Mills executive began blurring the line between editorial and advertising. Given the current editorial condition of the Times today, the late 1990s were the “good ol’ days.”
Ironically, under Baquet’s leadership, the line between editorial and advertising has since blurred at the New York Times. Another example of the Los Angeles Times once being an industry leader.
Eric Starkman is a Los Angeles-based writer. For 25 years, he was president of a New York-based crisis communications and PR firm. Earlier he worked at major newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.