Kirk in as LA Times crisis cools a bit


Jim Kirk, the new (again) top editor at the Los Angeles Times, arrived Monday afternoon from his home in Chicago and spoke to a staff gathering in the newsroom hoping to calm everything down. He called for everyone to pull in the same direction and vowed to participate in fair and open negotiations with the newsroom's new guild on a first contract. He assured the staff that the new editorial teams being secretly assembled outside the newsroom by his predecessor, Lewis D'Vorkin, would not be part of the Times but rather would generate digital content for the parent company Tronc. (D'Vorkin was named chief content officer for Tronc in the crisis shuffle that hit the news Sunday night.)

Thumbnail image for jim-kirk-latimes.jpgKirk, 52, served a few months as interim editor last year before Tronc imported D'Vorkin and at least knows some of the players at the Times. He reportedly said he would welcome back suspended Business section editor Kimi Yoshino, but said there were HR details still being worked through. Yah, I'd guess they want her to sign away her right to sue. He wouldn't promise there will not be layoffs ahead as the newspaper industry continues to adjust to lower revenues, but said he would be transparent about any pending changes.

Kirk spoke and took questions for 50 minutes, the Times said, and got some applause for answering a question from columnist Robin Abcarian about whether he had ever been accused of sexual harassment. (He said no.)

NPR's David Folkenflik, who reported the past sexual misbehavior allegations that led to the unpaid leave of absence that Times publisher Ross Levinsohn is on, live-blogged some of the meeting highlights.

The LAT story said the gathering had "a starkly different tone than that set by D'Vorkin, who conducted two contentious staff meetings, including one in which he scolded employees after discovering that someone had leaked a recording of a previous gathering to the New York Times."

Times staffers are not being as reticent as they used to be in talking about their bosses and screwed up company management. Longtime reporter Bettina Boxall was on KPCC's "AirTalk with Larry Mantle" on Monday discussing the Times mess. Others have been tweeting.

One of the editors hired by D'Vorkin for what was secretly being called the Los Angeles Times Network, reporting outside the newsroom, was Louise Story, recently of the New York Times. On Monday she elaborated to Ben Mullin of the Wall Street Journal on her decision not to join Tronc after all.

I had agreed to work at Tronc and at The Los Angeles Times in very high-level managerial roles. But, as a result of recent significant changes in those roles, I decided not to work there in any capacity. I'm sorry that I won't get to join the scores of great journalists who work there.

Peripheral to the Kirk and D'Vorkin news, a public disagreement broke out Monday between one of the Times' top investigative reporters (and guild organizers), Paul Pringle, and the paper's former investigations editor, Marc Duvoisin. Now in Houston, I believe, Duvoisin took issue with D'Vorkin coverage that says he had been fired from the Times over complaints about delays in the publication of last year's big project on the USC medical school dean who palled around with drug addicts and prostitutes.

Duvoisin posted on Twitter, prompting a rebuttal from Pringle, one of several in the newsroom known to be very unhappy about the handling of that investigation by the Times' previous top editors, Duvoisin and Davan Maharaj, who both were fired last August.

Duvoisin took to Facebook with a longer explanation of his view.

To my journalism friends and colleagues:

In covering the latest upheaval at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and other news organizations have alluded to an earlier LAT housecleaning in ways that suggest I and other newsroom leaders were sacked last August because of improprieties in the handling of the now-famous "USC dean" story.

This is untrue.

I edited the USC dean story, and I'd like to set the record straight.

No one inside or outside the Los Angeles Times interfered with the story or tried to block its publication. Ever. I was the managing editor, and I would not have tolerated it.

To the contrary, the paper committed significant time and resources to the project: Five reporters were detached to work on it full-time for months, with the direct involvement of the California editor (Shelby Grad) and the managing editor.

The mistaken suggestion that something nefarious went down originated with a complaint made to the L.A. Times' Human Resources department last summer. I was editing the story at the time. The complaint asserted that then editor-publisher Davan Maharaj was trying to block the story to protect USC from damaging publicity. This was absurd, and false. Nevertheless, then-HR chief Cindy Ballard investigated. She interviewed me, Shelby Grad and others at length and examined drafts of the story at various stages.

Ballard concluded that there had been no improprieties in the handling of the story, and that the complaint was groundless.

She shared this conclusion with the paper's remaining senior editors on Aug. 21, a few hours after I and the other victims of the masthead purge had been shown the door. The L.A. Times reported her finding in the next morning's paper.

There may have been many reasons why Tronc, parent company of The Times, wanted to clean house back in August. The USC story was not one of them.

Anyone who wants to discuss this further is invited to DM me at Facebook or Twitter or at [email address redacted].

By the way, the Times this weekend had a pretty dramatic update: the defrocked dean, Dr. Carmen Puliafito, placed a 911 call last fall to report that his girlfriend's baby had stopped breathing. The infant was dead when paramedics arrived. Puliafito was not there, and the Times says he has refused to be interviewed by investigators looking into the death.

Investigators have interviewed the child's parents, an accused drug dealer and a nude model who both struggled with addiction and whose troubled lives became entangled with Puliafito's in recent years.

Sheriff's Cmdr. Steven D. Katz said the investigators do not consider Puliafito a suspect, but a possible "witness or an informant."

I'm not convinced yet that the log of Lewis D'Vorkin's impact on the Los Angeles Times is ready to be closed. If he remains as chief editor of Tronc, which as yet has no media outlets of its own except its newspapers, his simplistic view of web news could still mean that marketers and uninformed points of view start to share the content bandwidth of the LAT website. In the Times newsroom, he was largely reviled as much for his detachment and manner as for his circa-2010 ideas.

A former Times editor sent this observation from the newsroom that seems to sum up both D'Vorkin's lack of trust toward his colleagues and his cluelessness.

Meanwhile, the stories about a new siege of upheaval at the Los Angeles Times had Twitter working overtime.

More by Kevin Roderick:
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