Los Angeles Times newsroom guild leaders called for a one-day walkout Friday to protest planned cuts to offset steep financial losses that owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and his family have absorbed since acquiring the paper nearly six years ago.
The Times disclosed Thursday that substantial layoffs were coming due to a widening budget deficit. The one-day strike represents the newsroom's first union-organized work stoppage in the paper's 142-year history.
Management has not publicly disclosed the number of newsroom positions that will be eliminated, but knowledgeable people said the plan is to lay off at least 100 journalists, or about 20% of the newsroom — the largest staff cut since the paper was owned by Tribune Co.
The looming cuts have sparked widespread anxiety in a newsroom already shaken by last week’s abrupt departure of Executive Editor Kevin Merida, who stepped down amid tensions with Soon-Shiong, in large part, over Merida’s fears that the magnitude of the proposed cuts would hamper the paper’s progress toward strengthening its journalism to become a sustainable enterprise, according to the knowledgeable people.
The proposed layoffs will mark the third round of cuts since June, when more than 70 positions, or about 13% of the newsroom, were trimmed.
“The company and the Guild are currently in discussions about how to proceed,” newsroom managers said in a message sent to the newsroom Thursday. “We believe our shared goals are to preserve as many jobs as possible and maintain areas of coverage that better represent the communities we serve and that our readers have shown us are vital to the business.”
This week, Soon-Shiong and other managers asked the union’s bargaining unit to relax provisions in its contract intended to protect journalists with seniority from layoffs. If the union agreed to that, the company would offer affected employees a buyout package in advance of any layoff, managers said.
Soon-Shiong wants to make cuts while also retaining diverse staff members who have joined the paper in recent years as the organization has prioritized its efforts to boost the number of journalists of color to better reflect the community that it serves.
“After so many decades of falling short, we are finally making real strides toward accurately reflecting our city and region,” L.A. Times Guild Caucus leaders wrote in a letter to Soon-Shiong and his wife, Michele Chan Soon-Shiong, earlier this week. The group includes caucuses representing Black, Latino, Asian American, Middle Eastern, South Asian and LGBTQ+ staff members.
“As you navigate financial pressures in our industry, we urge you to avoid undoing the diversity that we’ve worked so hard to build,” the Guild Caucus leaders wrote. “Layoffs would be catastrophic, eliminating new and essential voices and diminishing the gains we’ve made under your family’s leadership.”
Managers have told the staff that relaxing seniority rules in the contract would save 50 newsroom jobs out of an undisclosed number. Managers would like the ability to spare more recent hires from the cuts and instead pull from a pool of more veteran staffers.
Union members were furious that they were, in effect, being asked to make an “impossible choice” to suspend seniority protections to make it easier to lay off people.
“Management is trying to pit colleagues against colleagues to execute a plan that will be detrimental to the long term success of the L.A. Times and a blow to the free press in the second largest city in America,” said the Guild's Black Caucus co-chairs Erin B. Logan and Erika D. Smith in a statement.
The one-day work stoppage — described by the union as an "unfair labor practice strike" — was envisioned as a way to demonstrate unity and extract concessions from managers.
Guild members did not vote on the action. Leaders said a vote wasn't necessary because the strike was not open-ended and guild members were told it was their decision whether or not to participate.
“We need to show them that this place does not exist without workers,” L.A. Times Guild Unit Chairman Brian Contreras told more than 300 journalists who joined an emergency union meeting, held by Zoom, on Thursday.
"The company is disappointed in this decision, but respects the Guild’s right to strike," the editorial leadership team said in a note.
Some union members emphasized that seniority was “a bedrock principle” of any union contract and allows staff members to put down roots in the community and develop sources.
The union’s contract expired more than a year ago, but the terms are still in effect.
Soon-Shiong has told managers that although he's willing to continue to subsidize the operation in the future, cuts are necessary to offset declining revenues. The company lost $30 million to $40 million last year, said two sources familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.
Union members were frustrated that the company has not disclosed how many jobs will be cut.
“The Bargaining Committee is not allowed to say how many Guild members the company wants to lay off. But folks: This is the Big One,” Media Guild of the West President Matt Pearce told fellow colleagues in an email calling the emergency meeting.
Soon-Shiong and his family acquired The Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune for $500 million in June 2018 from Tribune Co., restoring Los Angeles’ 142-year-old institution to local ownership after more than a decade of turmoil and endless waves of cost-cutting that prompted an exodus of talented journalists and a withering of ambition.
The newsroom is currently being managed by a committee of top editors after Merida departed Friday. He cited several reasons for his exit, including differences of opinion with his boss over his role and "how journalism should be practiced."
A source of friction erupted over Merida's response to a letter signed by three dozen staffers decrying the deaths of Palestinian journalists and Israel’s actions.
Citing the company's newsroom ethics policy that forbids involvement in political causes, Merida swiftly removed those journalists from all coverage of issues that were directly or indirectly related to the Middle East conflict for at least three months.
Soon-Shiong said he was “disappointed” that Merida had not informed him before making the decision, although he cited other factors for Merida’s exit, including a lack of progress toward meeting readership goals.
The Times has faced setbacks brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, a rapidly shifting news environment and financial head winds that have stymied his goal to make the organization self-supporting. Last summer, the Soon-Shiong family sold the San Diego paper to an affiliate of Denver-based MediaNews Group, which is owned by controversial New York investment firm Alden Global Capital.
The most recent wave of staff cuts comes amid a troubled media landscape with NBC News, the Washington Post, Conde Nast and other publishers shedding staff members. The news industry witnessed a decline of 2,681 jobs last year, according to a report late last year by employment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Media giants, including Google, Amazon, Warner Bros. Discovery and Walt Disney Co., have also eliminated thousands of jobs.
"We need to reduce our operating budget going into this year and anticipate layoffs,” Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning said Thursday in a statement. “The hardest decisions to make are those that impact our employees, and we do not come to any such decisions lightly. We are continuing to review the revenue projections for this year and taking a very careful look at expenses and what our organization can support."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.