The media conglomerate tronc has been fighting to bust the union drive at its flagship newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, for months. Meanwhile, tronc chairman Michael Ferro has been writing checks to his own consulting firm and looking at designs for a swanky new office for the newspaper in downtown LA.
A proposal for that workspace, published by the Times’ union organizing committee on Wednesday, showed telltale signs of a rich mogul using his publicly traded—and financially embattled—company as a private playground.
The proposal appeared to revolve around an absurd attempt to turn a 136-year-old newspaper into LA’s hottest club. There was a rooftop helipad that would drop off guests near a bar and event space. Ferro’s penthouse corner office, flanked by a “game room,” would have sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills. “Employees and VIP guests” could use a celebrity-designed test kitchen and coffee bar for, among other things, “impromptu content creation.”
The Times organizing committee’s publication of the office sketch—just one of the location changes it says the Times is “actively” considering—came after reporters caught wind that the newspaper might move from its Gordon Kaufmann-designed Art Deco building in downtown LA. The proposal, much of which is dedicated to conceptual renderings of high-end amenities and art installations, included just a single page outlining journalists’ work space. It did, however, put forth ideas for a “recyclable branded coffee cup” and Times merch.
“The proposal placed the journalists who produce the Times in cramped quarters poorly designed for the work we do,” the paper’s organizing committee wrote to Times publisher Ross Levinsohn.
The news comes as staffers await the results of a newsroom-wide unionization vote, which would be the latest victory for organized labor in media and a defeat for the historic anti-union ideology at the paper. (The final tally is expected by Jan. 19.) tronc has argued that a union would create unnecessary friction at the company. But its office proposal, addressed to Ferro by name, is yet more evidence that such friction stems from the c-suite.
The proposal is also part of a larger pattern in which Ferro spends lavishly on private jets and executive pay while having no discernible strategy for extricating tronc’s famous newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News, from their palliative declines. tronc laid off some employees—many others haven’t gotten raises in years—just months before SEC filings showed it contracting Ferro’s consulting firm for “certain management expertise” somehow worth $15 million over three years. The chairman’s recently installed and overpaid lieutenants have offered up the same tired lines about having workers’ interests at heart, all while showing a questionable understanding of how elections work and stocking anti-union literature with turn-of-the-century ClipArt.
Many legacy media companies have similarly retreated from their historic headquarters as staffs have shrunk and rents have risen. But the Times organizing committee argued in its recent letter to Levinsohn that the locations being explored would seem to up costs or drastically increase workers’ commutes.
“Again, we ask that you open to the staff any discussion of relocating the Times and reconfiguring the newsroom,” it wrote. “We’re asking for a meeting in the coming days to address these issues with you personally, as a gesture of good faith, before we bring them to the newsroom.”
In response, Levinsohn, who was installed as publisher and CEO of the Times in August, told his employees to scram. The organizing committee published his response as part of its memo to staffers Wednesday:
Thanks for taking the time and effort to research and write the note regarding your concerns about our business going forward. When the time is right for the company to communicate our go-forward strategy, including our current lease situation, I will do my best to do so in the right setting. Until that time, it’s important we all keep focused on delivering the best possible experiences for our millions of consumers who count on The Los Angeles Times day in and day out. Thanks for reaching out.
I emailed a tronc spokesperson last night asking how the company could justify considering such a proposal while its revenues slowly shrink and its employees are consistently asked to do more with less. I’ll update this post with any response I get.
In the meantime, I look forward to Times journalists continuing to make public things their bosses want to keep private. Newly crowned Editor Lewis D’Vorkin may consider newsroom leaks “morally bankrupt,” if not illegal. I think of them more as “impromptu content creation.”
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