LA Times 'prince of darkness' strikes

lewis-dvorkin-lat2.jpgStormy day on Wednesday at the Los Angeles Times. It began with a long and troubling Columbia Journalism Review story calling the current editor in chief "LA journalism’s ‘Prince of Darkness’" and ended with the editor of the Business section being walked out of the building, apparently suspended by His Darkness, while staffers fumed on social media.

First the CJR story. It opens with an anecdote of editor Lewis D'Vorkin "threatening" staffers at a newsroom gathering, and goes on to lay out why everything we know about D'Vorkin's overstated past and lack of people skills makes him just about the last person you would put in charge of this LA Times newsroom if the idea is to get the best out of a top team of journalists already well along on a transformation from print to digital. D'Vorkin is revealed as not really knowing what his new staff does or how they do it — only that they need to get on board with his dubious program. "It might be good to know what I believe and what makes me tick,” he told that early newsroom gathering.

From the 5,000-word CJR piece by Lyz Lenz, who previously had written for the review about journalists Pamela Colloff and Chris Cillizza:

Getting to know Lewis D’Vorkin isn’t that easy, and neither is making sense of what exactly he has planned for the LA Times. In a nearly 44-year career, D’Vorkin, 65, has made few friends and many enemies. Even those who speak positively about him acknowledge he can be difficult, threatening, and, in the words of one writer who worked with D’Vorkin for more than four years and actually likes him, “without journalistic ethic.” And the successes that underpin his career, such as bringing an unpaid contributor model and branded content to Forbes, are among the very innovations that have helped bring media to a crisis moment....

What is clear about D’Vorkin is that he’s propelled by a love of buzzwords (gif is a current favorite) and an overriding ethos of change. LA Times journalists are probably wise to worry. Look no further than Stewart Pinkerton’s book, The Fall of The House of Forbes, which includes two chapters on D’Vorkin, who often wears black jeans, dark colored sweaters, and fashion sneakers. The first is titled, “The Prince of Darkness Part I,” and the second, “The Prince of Darkness Part II.”


D’Vorkin brought with him a reputation as the media equivalent of a house flipper—making cosmetic changes to gussy up a brand for some quick cash. At Forbes and at his Forbes-funded startup True/Slant, he performed his media remodel by instituting a contributor model, where writers were paid according to the volume of their traffic, and sometimes not at all. The scheme flooded Forbes with content, a swath of it of suspect quality and journalistic value, but enough to boost traffic and entice an Hong Kong firm, Whale Media Investments, to buy Forbes for an undisclosed amount in July 2014. In an interview with CJR, Mike Perlis, former CEO of Forbes, states that D’Vorkin’s changes saved the magazine.

A writer who worked with D’Vorkin for several years agrees. “[D’Vorkin] took over Forbes at a time when search and social was a nice, new growing stream of traffic, and then it became the whole thing, and the ad networks took over all of digital advertising,” explains the writer. “The tide that lifted the boat eventually swamped it. I don’t know. I don’t know how anybody solves that problem.”

Parent company Tronc and Times publisher Ross Levinsohn (currently on unpaid leave for an investigation into his own unclean past) over-billed D'Vorkin as an experienced newsroom leader. Yeah, not so much. While he did build up traffic at Forbes, an early career stint at the New York Times amounted to less than Tronc lets you believe — he was a backfield editor on the Business desk — and his Wall Street Journal record is checkered at best.

At the Journal, D’Vorkin was hired to be the Page One editor in 1987, a job he held for six months before he left and filed for personal bankruptcy. According to a 2010 profile of D’Vorkin in the Observer, he had reportedly misused his expense account. The bills were from Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Tiffany.

A New York Times story from 1988 about D’Vorkin’s bankruptcy notes, “Mr. D’Vorkin’s bankruptcy filing listed personal debts of about $129,000, said a spokesman for Dow Jones & Company, which owns the Journal. Those debts include an unspecified sum owed to Dow Jones. The largest debt is about $45,000 owed to American Express, the spokesman said.”

A New York Times story about his resignation noted, “Mr. D’Vorkin ruffled some feathers when he replaced Glynn Mapes, his popular predecessor, who had been Page One editor for 12 years…” Journalists complained that D’Vorkin went too far as an editor—jazzing up their stories beyond what they were comfortable with. The Page One staff, writes Pinkerton, “…felt D’Vorkin was pushing traditional Journal standards of taste too far.”

Even the people who liked him note that he wasn’t well liked. Glynn Mapes, who worked with him at The Wall Street Journal in the late 1980s, says, “He wasn’t terribly popular. I don’t think he would deny that.”

The story drills deeper into the background of the top editor of the LA Times — well worth a read to prepare for what figures to be a very turbulent time for SoCal news consumers. Also this:

By all accounts, D’Vorkin has never been a hands-on editor. Even back in his early days of journalism, beyond shutting down an idea, or tweaking a lede or a headline, writers doubted he even read the content.

He’s always been a big-picture guy—someone more concerned with the overall spread of the magazine than the day-to-day minutiae of fact-checking stories for accuracy. 'Speed is the new accuracy,' Pinkerton quotes D’Vorkin as saying."

kimi-yoshino-twitter.jpegAlmost everyone I know connected to the Times, past or current, was talking about the CJR story today, then in the afternoon reports leaked out of the newsroom that D'Vorkin had Kimi Yoshino, who oversees the Business section and staff, abruptly escorted out of the building. Her ejection was so abrupt that some eyewitness accounts said her laptop was left open on her desk. The rumors were that Yoshino was placed on leave for an unknown reason.

Late in the day, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik felt he had enough to post on Twitter. It was Folkenflik who last week disclosed accusations of past inappropriate behavior publisher Ross Levinsohn, who hired D'Vorkin. Levinsohn is on unpaid leave pending an investigation, Tronc says.

Folkenflik added that he had three sources for the story, but the incident was being talked over wherever LAT journalists, current and former, gather online. Yoshino is a popular former reporter and blogger on L.A. Now who, as a Metro desk editor, helped lead the Pulitzer-winning investigative series about corruption in the city of Bell. Sample:

Some of the background, for those not yet paying attention. The LA Times is now owned by a Chicago company called Tronc that holds the former Tribune Company newspapers and, as of recently, the New York Daily News. Tronc was taken over by Michael Ferro, a Chicago money guy who once owned the Sun-Times newspaper in that city. Tronc and Ferro say they see the Los Angeles Times as a key asset in a long-range strategic plan to sell content on the Internet created by journalists at the LAT and the other papers and a larger body of non-professional, possibly unpaid "expert" contributors. Tronc last summer cleaned out the newspaper leadership of the Times and installed Levinsohn and D'Vorkin, who have never run any size of newspaper or shown any commitment to covering news about Southern California.

Industry analyst Ken Doctor revealed that D'Vorkin plans to import a new team of senior editors loyal to him — none of them have run a digital or print newspaper either, but at least they have senior level editing experience. Last week, LAT staffers won handily (by 248-44) a vote to create a union and said that, in addition to the usual issues of pay and benefits, the union will take on the role of protecting the Times' journalistic standards from Tronc's plans. One of the new LAT Guild's tactics has been to invite outside supporters to subscribe to the paper, and it appears from social media that at least dozens have done so.

The newsroom union team has already called for the ouster of Levinsohn and blasted the strategic plan to water down the Times brand with outside contributors — in real life that could mean writers paid by advertisers, marketers and special interests to place disguised ads, opinions or links into web content. It could also mean an increase in cheap clickbait gimmicks. The guild has also demanded to be consulted on plans to move the Times itself out of its longtime Civic Center home, which has been sold and targeted for redevelopment.

All this turmoil at the Times comes as deep layoffs this week have hit the only other newspapers of any size in Southern California. The SoCal News Group cuts have affected photographers and sports staffers at the Daily News, Daily Breeze, Star-News and the Register. The Breeze and the Press-Telegram are down to one photographer each, according to staffers on social media. The group has announced it will cut into the ranks of news reporters and editors next week.

San Diego journalist Luis Gomez, keeper of an email list of news jobs he circulates, is offering to collect information on all of the SCNG layoffs.

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