Kevin Merida never imagined he’d become the top editor at the Los Angeles Times, a paper he’d never worked at, in a city he’s never lived in. But since he accepted the job in June—besting a stable of Times insiders and high-profile outsiders—Merida says he’s eager to turn the beleaguered publication around, a mission that more than a dozen top editors and executives before him failed to accomplish.
Merida, 64, moved from the Washington, DC, area to temporary digs on L.A.’s Westside last June while he and his wife, the writer and columnist Donna Britt, look for more permanent quarters. Merida says he thought about moving here long before he got a call from the headhunters at the Times—his three adult sons all live in L.A., and it seemed a good place to retire. After 40 years in East Coast media—half of them at the Washington Post—he thought he might teach a class or two at USC, spend more time with his family, relax and enjoy the weather.
Instead, Merida is now taking over one of the largest and oldest newspapers in the country, which, for the last decade, has been in turmoil.
“It’s a great challenge,” Merida says, with considerable understatement, in a video call from the Times’s El Segundo offices. He acknowledges being “approached” about taking over from Post editor Marty Baron, who left the paper earlier this year, but says, “Ultimately, I didn’t put my hat in the ring.” He hastens to add that he’s “very happy” to be at the Times.
Reversing the declining fortunes of a 139-year-old institution is bound to pose a few challenges. Among them are winning over a newly unionized and famously fractious newsroom skeptical of management after years of layoffs, and rebooting the paper’s web operations.
“Most importantly, his job is to move us into the digital arena,” said Patrick Soon-Shiong, the Times’s billionaire owner, when he announced Merida’s hiring. “We want this paper to be around for another 139 years.”
Soon-Shiong, a South African–born pharmaceutical mogul, spent $500 million to acquire the Times, along with the San Diego Union Tribune, from Tribune Publishing in mid-2018, rescuing the paper from oblivion. Pre-Tribune, the Times boasted an editorial staff of 1,200, the largest in the nation; when Soon-Shiong took over the paper, it had shrunk to 400 or so. (It currently stands at 550.)
After years of fat profits—the Sunday edition was once freighted with so much advertising that a paper hurled by a delivery boy supposedly struck and killed a small dog—the Times was already beginning to falter when Tribune acquired it in 2000. The company’s purchase of the paper coincided with the most disruptive decade to hit news media since the advent of television. While the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal eventually pivoted to credible online operations, the L.A. Times struggled to keep up. Meanwhile, employees were enraged after Tribune fired Dean Baquet—now the outgoing editor of the New York Times and the paper’s first Black executive editor—when he refused to furlough even more staff after holding the top job for just two years.
To head up his new media empire, Soon-Shiong hired Norman Pearlstine, a legendary veteran of the Wall Street Journal and Time Inc., to steer the paper into a new golden era. But though the paper won three Pulitzers during Pearlstine’s brief editorship, his tenure was complicated by the pandemic and its attendant decimation of advertising, as well as a wave of social activism ignited by the murder of George Floyd. Plagiarism by one reporter came to light; another was found to have crossed ethical lines. Pearlstine, 74, came from a much different social and news culture than the one bubbling up around him, where younger staffers were increasingly unafraid to confront their bosses. He made a sudden exit last October, about a month after the Times concluded an investigation into its recent “turmoil and scandals.” By then, sources say, Soon-Shiong and his star editor were only talking about once a month.
“The pain of the past has never healed,” Marques Harper, an editor at the paper, said during the Times’s internal investigation. “After the sale, we were expecting a reimagination and rejuvenation would unfold. Instead, we’ve had controversies and scandals.”
Merida, who was selected for the post over a slew of internal candidates, is an online innovator with a reputation for being well-liked by staff and respected within the industry. Soon-Shiong said his choice of yet another Times outsider was a step toward increasing diversity at the paper, which he called “mission critical for our business.”
Refurbishing the Times’s business model is one of Merida’s top priorities. “Revenue is good wherever you can get it,” he says, “and there are lots of ways to get revenue.” He wants the Times to expand into documentaries, podcasts, influencer content, town halls, movies, neighborhood events—while preserving its core mission built around “elite” journalism, the importance of which, he notes, “will never shrink.” He’s soliciting ideas from the Times staff, distributing his personal cell-phone number so they can text him directly. “Maybe that was a mistake, but with your staff, you know . . . this is my family now,” he says. And he seems to genuinely believe that the Times can reclaim its former glory. “To really change what you’re doing dramatically is hard, but I think the times really call for that. We’re in the same game as everybody, asking for their money. But you’ve got to earn that.”
The Times has pushed digital subscriptions for years to little avail—it currently counts less than a million paying online subscribers in a county with ten million residents and a region with more than double that. Meanwhile, the New York Times boasts close to eight million online subscribers; the Wall Street Journal has around three million, as does the Washington Post. Merida acknowledges the challenges that these and other dismal data points portend if they are not reversed but professes to be unfazed. “The opportunities are bigger than the challenges. Absolutely,” he says.
Merida started his career as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News in 1979 and later landed at the Washington Post, covering Congress during the 1996 election and writing profiles on the likes of Strom Thurmond and Hillary Clinton before he was promoted to national editor and then managing editor. His career aligns with some of the industry’s brightest and most wrenching moments of the past 30 years, and he believes the Times is positioned for an unambiguous return to form.
“There’s always a place for something like the L.A. Times, but we can all get better, right? This can be a new golden age,” Merida says. “I came for the challenge. And it’s a great challenge. We’re not like the other big newspaper companies. We’re kind of on our own, which means we can create our own image, our own thing. You don’t need a big, Disney-like entertainment company to make a documentary film.”
Merida would know—he was a senior vice president at Disney-owned ESPN before joining the Times, leading The Undefeated since 2015. His tenure at the popular sports and culture website—which, when he took over, was mired in reports of a toxic work environment under original editor in chief Jason Whitlock—gives him a sense of what is possible at the Times and how long it may take to achieve it. Within five years of Merida’s arrival, The Undefeated was scoring speakers like Barack Obama for its events, its journalism was winning industry awards, and it had entered book publishing and music production.
Now that Merida oversees a diminished but viable media brand with worldwide name recognition and a deep-pocketed owner in his corner, he’s cautiously bullish about the Times’s prospects.
“I’m impatient, I’m aggressive,” he says. “But you have to build it piece by piece, so I don’t know the exact timeline. But here, we’ve got nothing but advantages.”
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