The Los Angeles Times has lots of challenges, including years of harsh staff cuts, a corporate parent of questionable value, and an ongoing union drive at a historically anti-union company. Brand-new Times editor Lewis D’Vorkin is taking on the most important challenge first: what his employees must not tweet.
Splinter obtained a recording of a staff meeting D’Vorkin held earlier this month (a meeting first reported by the New York Times). The recording consists of a 15-minute monologue to staff followed by 40 minutes of somewhat contentious Q-and-A. D’Vorkin comes to the paper from Forbes, where he was “Chief Product Officer,” responsible in large part for innovating new ways of disguising advertising as not-advertising. He hasn’t had an editorial job in a newsroom in many years, making many Times staffers understandably skeptical about his intentions and abilities as top editor of a proud institution of journalism.
Much of the discussion centers on the paper’s recent “spat” with Disney. (Disney barred L.A. Times critics from film screenings, because the company didn’t like the paper’s tough reporting on it, but was forced to back down once many other news outlets said they would boycott Disney screenings themselves.) The staff was disappointed that the incident received heavy coverage in other outlets but little in the L.A. Times itself. Why the reticence? “I am not a fan of getting involved in the traditional media spats that exist. They don’t do anything to bring any more trust to the brands,” D’Vorkin said in the meeting.
The brand. Lewis D’Vorkin is the type of editor who refers frequently to the brand. He does not lack for buzzwords. He told the staff that his priorities are, in order: 1) “Digital transformation,” 2) “Great journalism,” and 3) “Diversity in the newsroom.” He is also a fan of social media. “Social is a priority of mine, as is data,” he said. (D’Vorkin himself, who has 5,766 Twitter followers, tweeted today for the first time since October 10.)
And let’s not forget video!
“Video is a huge thing in the world today from an advertising perspective. it’s where brands want to be,” he told his newsroom. “To me, video equals mobile equals social. It’s all a triangle.”
It seems apparent, after listening to Lewis D’Vorkin talk for an hour, that he is not what you would call a great motivator. Although this newsroom meeting took place during a time of great uncertainty for the media industry, the country, and the L.A. Times itself, D’Vorkin spent an inordinate amount of time expressing his strong conviction that reporters and editors should never tweet anything resembling an opinion—that they should never tweet anything that they would not write in a news story, anything that might damage “the representation of the brand.” Indeed, he even utters the words, “To me, retweets are endorsements of a tweet,” leading to a farcical back-and-forth over whether or not it is acceptable for political reporters to retweet the president of the United States. (Maybe not???) “I believe in the Vince Lombardi school of journalism,” D’Vorkin explains. “When you go to the end zone, act like you been there before.”
“And our end zone is great stories,” he adds.
The union drive at the paper seems strong, brought on by decades of layoffs, budget cuts, and careless management, none of which has been greatly remedied under the ownership of tronc. The company’s bold anti-union rhetoric seems only to have caused the newsroom to dig in further. Though one might hope for a top editor who supports his newsroom employees’ right to organize, that would be a fantasy in the tronc media world. Asked in the meeting whether or not he believes that journalists tweeting about the union drive is unacceptable, he demurs, but says: “As far as social media goes, we need to abide by the guidelines.” (I have emailed the company for clarification and will update this post if they respond.)
No, it does not seem that the Lewis D’Vorkin era is off to a thunderous start. The L.A. Times, a paper that has been cruelly hollowed out by a succession of unsuccessful businessmen, may yet see a resurrection, but it is one that will probably not come from the top down. About twenty minutes into the staff meeting, as tension began to creep into the air, one staffer asked the new editor how the paper plans to begin paying competitive salaries to reporters again, so that they stop losing talent. “Maybe I’m different,” D’Vorkin—almost certainly the highest-paid person in the room—replies. “I’ve never done anything in this business for money myself.”