Norman Pearlstine, the 78-year-old executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, will step down from his prominent role with the paper at some point in the near future, according to an announcement made to staff on Monday. He is expected to remain in the Times orbit as an advisor once he’s resigned from his current position.
“It has been an honor to serve as your executive editor since Patrick and Michele Soon-Shiong acquired the Los Angeles Times in June of 2018. Now, we have agreed that it’s time to begin an open search for my successor,” the Times reported him writing in a statement.
Pearlstine’s tenure has been mixed, with some crediting him for helping an embattled publication get back on its feet after struggling under its previous ownership–and others saying he prioritized the hiring of prominent people from the New York City media world and making other superficial updates, while allowing more urgent issues of racial disparities, ethics violations, and workplace misconduct to fester.
“I don’t think that Norm is malicious,” one source told Vice for an article in July that chronicled numerous reports of concerns about Pearlstine’s leadership. Nonetheless, according to that source and dozens of others, a lack of malice proved inadequate for the job at hand.
When he came in, Pearlstine oversaw a hiring frenzy, bringing on around 100 journalists. But, staffers say, the hiring skewed white and male; women and journalists of color who were hired or retained were, critics say, underpaid and given far less access to advancement. Six journalists of color have brought a class-action suit on behalf of themselves and other staff of the paper alleging widespread pay gaps and discrimination.
Instead of nurturing diverse, local talent, Pearlstine set his sights on a coterie of big-name hires that he may have thought would increase the paper’s national appeal.
“I did not do a good enough job of really thinking about accountability and about result,” Pearlstine told NPR. “And I think that if I’m honest in reflecting on that period, our hiring reflected that.”
One of the high-profile hires made under Pearlstine’s management was that of New York-based food editor Peter Meehan in early 2019. Meehan would in his short time with the paper be implicated in a litany of accusations of mismanagement, discrimination, misconduct, and sexual harassment. Multiple sources have said that, when asked to address complaints about Meehan, upper management turned a blind eye. Patricia Escárcega, one of the two food critics brought in to fill the void left after the death of Jonathan Gold, is currently pursuing a discrimination claim against the Times.
Among the many shifts in American culture that will be remembered as legacies of the civil rights protests which engulfed the country during the summer of 2020, one will be the shifting of power in the nation’s newsrooms. Younger journalists in particular have used the moment of national reckoning to hold their publications to account on issues of diversity and workplace conduct.
That historic wave has washed dramatically over the Los Angeles Times. The paper has been powerfully called out by its Black and Latino journalists, among others. Journalists demanded that management commit to creating a newsroom with demographics that more fully reflect the diversity of Los Angeles itself, and that the paper formally, publicly apologize for the role it played in stoking racial prejudice.
In a June memo, Pearlstine acknowledged that, under his management, the Times was failing to create a newspaper that served the city or even its own staff.
“We can be faulted for focusing on a white subscriber base even as the city became majority non-white. Our paper’s history of addressing the concerns of people of color in the newsroom has been equally checkered. Our failures have caused pain for staff past and present,” he wrote. “It is vital, as we continue to revive the Los Angeles Times, that we do better.”
Addressing the paper’s staff today, Pearlstine cast his departure as yet another step in that process, stating, “I also recognize it’s the right time to find a successor—an editor who embodies the qualities needed to continue The Times’ revival.”
Prior to taking on the role of executive editor, Pearlstine was an established media figure, having held top jobs at Time, Inc., The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Bloomberg. In 2018, Soon-Shiong reached out to Pearlstine to oversee recruitment of a leader for his new acquisition; Pearlstine ultimately took the role on himself.
Under his leadership, the Times received three Pulitzer prizes–a 2019 award for investigative reporting by Harriet Ryan, Matt Hamilton, and Paul Pringle, and two awards in 2020, one for audio reporting by Molly O’Toole and one for criticism by Christopher Knight–but audience growth remained sluggish, particularly online.
The Poynter Institute, which studies journalism, reported that the paper netted only 13,000 digital subscriptions in the first six months of 2019. “Whether due to unrealistic expectations or editorial and business failures, the Times is nowhere close to meeting its digital subscription goal,” the Poynter report noted. Pearlstine had described growing the digital audience as the “top priority” under his leadership, stating at the time that the paper’s “future depends” on the online business.
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