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Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Back issues
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LA Times staff stages mass walkout as threat of newsroom gut looms

The one-day strike is believed to be the first in the paper's storied 143-year history.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Nearly every reporter at the Los Angeles Times staged a one-day strike Friday in protest of plans to cut as many as 100 journalists, or roughly 20% of the newsroom, according to reporting by the Times.

"We've been at the bargaining table for 16 months," Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Matt Hamilton told the crowd of several hundred LA Times employees at a rally in Grand Park. "We've gone two years without raises. And we're asking for better. These job cuts will devastate — you all know this. This will change the LA Times forever, and we have to be better to protect local journalism."

In an email, LA Times spokesperson Hillary Manning said "We need to reduce our operating budget going into this year and anticipate layoffs." She did not say how many positions would be cut, and implied that the decision had not yet been made. "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."

The walkout is believed to be the first in the paper's storied 143-year history. Founded in 1881, it was owned for more than a century by Harrison Gray Otis and his direct descendants, the Chandlers. The family sold the paper to the Chicago-based Tribune Company in 2000. A rocky two decades followed, marked by steep budget cuts to what was a venerated national newspaper that competed with The New York Times and The Washington Post. Its parent company was bought by Sam Zell in 2007; a year later, the company declared bankruptcy. Another Chicago figure, Michael Ferro, gained control of the Tribune Company in 2016, which he rebranded, "Tronc," in a move that was widely ridiculed.

When biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the LA Times in 2018 for the princely sum of $500 million, he was seen by some as a possible savior, everything the previous owners weren't: smart, uber-rich, and perhaps most importantly, an Angeleno with stake in the city. The South African born, ethnically Chinese Soon-Shiong, a former surgeon who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals and data infrastructure, had founded the Cancer Moonshot 2020 initiative, with the goal “to develop an effective vaccine-based immunotherapy to combat cancer by 2020.” He was subsequently criticized for giving cancer patients false hope and for over-hyping some of his companies' innovations.

Soon-Shiong's first couple years as the paper's owner were marked by a wild hiring spree, adding more than 100 new journalists, plus a widely respected and much sought-after executive editor, Kevin Merida, in 2021. But the Covid years were not kind to the paper, which was not immune to the same economic trends ravaging most newsrooms. According to the Wrap, the Times is hemorrhaging $50 million a year. In June 2023, the paper eliminated 74 positions in the newsroom, about 13% of its total. Most expect the next round of cuts to be even worse.

According to a statement posted by the union's bargaining committee, the Times' management said that "it intends to imminently execute another major round of layoffs at the LA Times and has asked the guild to gut seniority protections in our contracts so they have vastly more freedom to pick who to lay off." In exchange, management offered to add in a layer of buyouts (large severance packages, typically commensurate with length of employment) and lay off 50 fewer union members, though they didn't specify how many union members they plan to let go.

"The news industry, famously, has been collapsing nationally over the last couple of decades," said Matt Pearce, a Times reporter and president of their union, Media Guild of the West. "It's become increasingly hard for journalists to sustain careers in this industry. And so seniority is really important for a lot of journalists to be able to have professional careers in this industry."

He added: "This is one of the foundational rights of many union contracts. And so we brought what management said back to our membership, we asked these folks what they thought and they said, 'Hell no.'"

The union, in response, demanded that management offer across-the-board buyout offers, where employees would be given up to a year of salary, with no limit on the number of offers. The union also asked management to "publicly articulate a clear headcount or salary reduction they’re aiming for," according to a written statement by the union, and for the total number of buyouts to be credited against the total number of proposed headcount reduction.

The union also demanded "an all-hands town hall and articulate a clear road map for revenue growth and not just cost reductions," and for the guild to have more input in major management decisions, including the search for the next editor.

As part of their walkout, the union has asked all of its readers not to visit the Times' website or click on any links to the Times' stories.

Asked what Saturday's paper would like, with nearly every reporter on strike, Pearce said, "I don't know, because management has frozen us out of Slack and email." He added: "I don't know how they're going to meet the print deadline. I don't know what they're going to be putting in the paper tomorrow. I don't know how they're gonna handle this. I don't even know if they know how to handle this."

In her email, Times' spokesperson Manning said, "The Los Angeles Times has not missed a day of publishing in 142 years and we are publishing today. We are disappointed in the guild’s decision, but respect their right to strike."

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