Talent Drain: The LA Times Lost Six Top Editors of Color in January | Exclusive

The Los Angeles Times has shed six newsroom leaders of color in less than a month, a troubling outcome for the publication which has historically struggled to create a diverse newsroom in the multicultural city of Los Angeles.

Even before Jan. 22’s historic layoffs of 120 newsroom staff — which has already disproportionately affected staffers of color — three Black and brown editors from the masthead had stepped down: executive editor Kevin Merida and managing editors Shani Hilton, both of whom are Black, and Sara Yasin, who is of Palestinian origin.

Their departures were followed a week later by the dismissal of at least three more prominent editors of color. Among them were Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington, D.C., bureau chief Kimbriell Kelly — the first Black person to lead the bureau — and Angel Rodriguez, general manager for Latino initiatives at the paper, which includes the Times’ six-month-old De Los vertical. Also laid off was one of the paper’s only Indigenous editors, Angie Jaime, who was the head of 404, the Times’ social media content team.

LA Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong
L.A. Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong in 2016 (Darren McCollester/Getty Images for NantHealth, Inc.)

“The L.A. Times has pledged in the past to try and make its reporters or its staff reflect the demographics of Los Angeles, not just Latinos, but the Black community and the Asian community,” Laura Castaneda, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told TheWrap. “So with these latest layoffs, they’re farther away from doing that than ever. That’s particularly disheartening.”

Despite the layoffs and resignations, several people of color still hold top positions at the paper. A look at the 20 people listed on the L.A. Times’ masthead shows that top editors are 40% white, 30% Latino, 15% AAPI or Southeast Asian and 10% Black.

Hillary Manning, the Times’ spokesperson, did not respond to TheWrap’s repeated requests for comment on this article.

The paper has grappled with diversity issues in recent years. Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who bought the paper in 2018, fired then-executive editor Norman Pearlstine in December 2020 for a number of reasons, including  pushback for the paper’s handling of diversity in its coverage and within its newsroom. Six months earlier, in what the Times itself called a “painful internal reckoning,” staffers of color confronted Pearlstine about the continuing lack of diversity at the paper.

At a June 2020 staff meeting, Soon-Shiong said, “You cannot understand racial inequality until you’ve truly lived it. We cannot and will not tolerate racism. More importantly, this paper has an opportunity to not only address it, but address it in ways much more deeply and more inspiring than being accusatory.”

At the time, Hilton said: “Our entire industry is going through this reckoning: How do we root out the anti-Black racism from our organization and from our coverage? How do we stop the tides of white supremacy that invade, not only what we do, but all of society?”

As an accomplished journalist, Merida — a Peabody winner for the 2006 Washington Post series “Being a Black Man” — was a visible symbol of the move toward this change. But just two and a half years after taking the helm, he was the first to announce he was leaving on Jan. 9. Stories about the tensions between Merida and Soon-Shiong continue to surface in the wake of the devastating cuts, including one in which the billionaire tried to squash a story about a billionaire friend whose dog may have bitten someone, according to a lawsuit.

Other reported clashes between Merida paint a picture of an owner who liked to “meddle” in decisions about news coverage, including whether staff should express their personal opinions on the ongoing Israeli-Gaza conflict.

The L.A. Times has pledged in the past to try and make its reporters or its staff reflect the demographics of Los Angeles … With these latest layoffs, they’re farther away from doing that than ever.

Laura Castaneda, professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

And then there were six …

After Merida’s exit, two more editors stepped down within two weeks. Yasin, who is Palestinian-American, had been criticized as being “pro-Hamas” by a media watchdog group after referring to Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide.” The paper and Merida stood by her at the time, with Manning dismissing the allegations as “inaccurate, irresponsible and reckless.”

Yasin tendered her resignation on Jan. 22, the day before the axe fell for more than 100 of her colleagues. In her farewell note, she wrote, “This is a decision I’ve been considering for a long time, for reasons both professional and personal. The short version: I’d like to do something different.” She thanked Merida and the “legion of journalists who embraced me,” but did not mention Soon-Shiong.

Former LA Times managing editor Shani Hilton at a 2022 event
Former L.A. Times managing editor Shani Hilton at an event in 2019 (Getty Images)

The same day, news surfaced that Hilton had quietly stepped down the week before, although few on staff had heard about it. In an internal memo about Yasin, SVP of content business strategy Julia Turner acknowledged that management had not adequately conveyed the news of Hilton’s resignation to staff, many of whom have continued to work remotely since the original stay-at-home COVID-19 order in March 2020.

Hilton, formerly of BuzzFeed, joined the Times as deputy managing editor in 2019. She told colleagues she had been planning to leave even before Merida stepped down, according to the Times. She oversaw the L.A. Times Studios — one of the production companies behind the Oscar-nominated short “The Last Repair Shop” — which had already been trimmed to the bone in December’s round of layoffs. TheWrap reached out to Hilton for comment but she did not respond.

Kelly, who held an assistant managing editor title, came to the Times in 2019 from The Washington Post, where she was part of the team that won a 2016 Pulitzer as co-lead author on the Fatal Force series about deadly police shootings.  “Winning a Pulitzer was one honor of my life,” Kelly tweeted. “Another [was] leading the [L.A. Times] Washington Bureau as its first person of color and only second woman.”

While she did not directly criticize the layoffs on social media, Kelly did retweet several posts, including one that read, “Yeah, this is bulls—t. Kimbriell is one of the best in the business and to lay off the D.C. bureau chief *during an election year* is egregious.” Sarah Wire, a Washington-based Times justice reporter, said the cuts, which eliminated several other D.C. positions, “decimated” the bureau. Kelly did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment on the layoffs.

A September 2022 Politico article reported the growing tensions at the paper and the D.C. bureau in particular, zeroing in on an unpleasant clash between Kelly and an editor who was “openly disrespectful” to her.

Screenshot of De Los section of the Los Angeles Times
Screenshot of the Times’ De Los section (De Los/Los Angeles Times)

General manager Rodriguez, who’d been at the Times for nearly nine years, was one of nine De Los staffers who were let go last week, as remaining editor Fidel Martinez noted on Thursday. Despite the losses, Martinez said, “We will continue to chronicle the many contours of Latinidad and will strive to tell as many of our stories as we can.”

The city of Los Angeles is 48% Latino.

Rodriguez also did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment. He has been busy on X promoting other laid-off colleagues and singing the praises of the five De Los team members still on staff.

After being laid off, Jaime wrote on X, “I have a lot to say about being an all-too-rare Indigenous leader at a legacy newsroom, about what I set out to accomplish with 404, the work we did and the community we built; making the unseen, seen. Know this — this is not the last you’ll hear from me.”

A revolving door keeps spinning

On Thursday, TheWrap broke the news that the publication had named Terry Tang, who was in charge of the paper’s opinion section, as the new interim executive editor. Turner and Scott Kraft, formerly an editor-at-large, are at the helm of the editorial team, reporting to her.

Tang is the first woman to hold the position and the 11th executive editor in the past 18 years. (And not to be confused with Terry Tang, the Associated Press reporter who received several congratulatory messages on Twitter for the promotion at the Times.)

Media veteran S. Mitra Kalita, who was a managing editor at the Times from April 2o15 to June 2016, found Tang’s promotion bittersweet.

“I dreamed of being the first female EIC of the LAT, lured out with that promise and ambition,” Kalita wrote on X. “That this is how it finally happens — interim, after crushing layoffs and uncertainty — should not take away from Terry Tang smashing a 142-yr-old glass ceiling.”

Terry Tang, Davan Maharaj, Dean Baquet
Terry Tang, interim L.A. Times executive editor as of January 2024; Davan Maharaj, editor-in-chief and publisher (2011–2017); Dean Baquet, executive editor (2005-2006) (Getty Images)

Noting how hard Tuesday’s layoffs hit staff of color, Tang told NBC News on Friday, “We’ve retained plenty of people who also offer that voice, myself included. Don’t lose heart because, when I started in this industry, it didn’t seem easy either … If you want to be a journalist, then you’ll find ways to do that.”

Speaking about the loss of Merida, Hilton and Yasin, Tang said: “There are great journalists who have left, and we’re all in a period of trying to reassess how we do things.”

A revolving door for top editors at the Times is nothing new. Past executive editors of color being shown the door include the unpopular Davan Maharaj who was ousted in 2017.

Maharaj, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and is of Indian descent, left under a cloud after his inexplicable 15-month delay of a major story about the opioid crisis.

Executive editor Dean Baquet, who is Black, resigned rather than carry out layoffs in 2006. Baquet returned to The New York Times, where he served as D.C. bureau chief and later as editor-in-chief.

Merida only held the job for two and a half years before calling it quits. As he told the L.A. Times last week, “I came to my decision based on a number of factors, including differences of opinion about the role of an executive editor, how journalism should be practiced and strategy going forward.”

Soon-Shiong, the only Asian-American owner among the five largest U.S. newspapers, said in May 2021 that he wanted to use the paper to help fight the disturbing wave of hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans. That was the same year that the L.A. Times Guild formed its first Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) caucus, noting in a letter published in the Times that the paper currently had “the largest representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of any major newsroom in America.”

The Times’ current diversity statement states that “a diverse and inclusive workforce that reflects the communities we serve is vital to that mission.”

According to the paper’s 2021 diversity report, the ethnicity of managers in the newsroom was 62% white, down from 68% in 2018. Meanwhile, people of color in management positions rose from 32% to 37% over the same time period. The most recent diversity report on the L.A. Times site is from 2021.

After the historic cuts, “Morale is as low as the ‘masthead massacre’ of 2017” when L.A. Times owner Tribune Publishing (then known as Tronc) fired Maharaj and three other top editors — Marc Duvoisin, Megan Garvey and Matt Doig — on the same day, a Times insider told TheWrap on Friday.

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