Entertainment

“I’m Drawn to Underdogs”: Kevin Merida Wants to Reinvent the ‘L.A. Times’

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Of all the major newspapers in America, or at least the ones that still exist, the Los Angeles Times has weathered more abuse than most. During the dark early days of the print-media apocalypse, the Chandler dynasty’s pride and joy was brought to the brink by a revolving door of nightmare bosses. (A former Times journalist once described them to me as “an unbelievable string of assholes.”) Hope was restored with the arrival in 2018 of the paper’s latest owner, the billionaire doctor, bioscientist, and medical entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, who now runs the Times with his wife, Michele Chan, and daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong. But still, three years after the Soon-Shiong family’s nearly $500 million deal to acquire the Times, it’s not entirely clear whether the paper’s future looks brighter than its tortured past.

Enter Kevin Merida, who succeeded Norm Pearlstine as executive editor in June, becoming the institution’s ninth newsroom leader in 15 years. In the blink of an eye, Merida, 64, went from a relatively under-the-radar figure to one of the most talked about news executives around—a veteran Black journalist who, on the heels of a long-overdue reckoning around race, soared into the still overwhelmingly white stratosphere of the news business. Some might say he’s the L.A. Times’s last great hope, because if Merida can’t position the place for long-term success, who can? “I didn’t come here because I don’t think we can have success,” Merida told me over Zoom a couple of weeks after he started. He and his wife, the journalist Donna Britt, were in Maryland, packing up for the move to L.A., where two of their sons live. “Whatever happened before was before, and now we have a chance to start right now.”

Born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised inside the Beltway, Merida cut his teeth at The Milwaukee Journal and The Dallas Morning News before landing at The Washington Post in 1993. He covered Congress and politics, worked as a features writer and columnist, and then climbed the ladder in various management roles. By 2013, he was the Post’s managing editor for news and features. He also became a key player in the Post’s digital transformation, which took flight under Jeff Bezos.

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In 2015, a dream job presented itself. ESPN, part of the Walt Disney Company, was launching a website called The Undefeated, which would cover race and culture through the lens of sports. They wanted Merida to run it. Under his stewardship, The Undefeated sizzled as a sort of cross-platform corporate start-up, churning out podcasts, events, TV specials, and a music collaboration with Disney’s Hollywood Records. Merida was elevated to a bigger role within ESPN, where he had already taken on additional responsibilities, overseeing investigative and long-form projects. As The Undefeated grew, Merida began reporting directly to network president Jimmy Pitaro, who told me Merida is a “truly outstanding executive” and “cool under pressure.” As Merida kicked off 2021, he was riding high with a job that felt like the best he could ask for, plus an array of exciting projects to look forward to in the new year, including a book imprint, a record label, and a consumer products line. But opportunity came knocking once again.

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Pearlstine, who turns 80 next year, had left the L.A. Times in December, and Merida began hearing from some of his contacts there. Would he consider being their new executive editor? The casual outreach whet his appetite enough to take a call with HR, which was followed by a series of Zooms with the Soon-Shiong family. “I was impressed they were all in it together,” Merida said. Meanwhile, in January, Marty Baron announced his retirement from The Washington Post, bringing the curtain down on a legendary eight-year editorship. Merida started getting calls from his Post buddies too. A lot of Post folks loved the idea of Merida taking the helm, not only because of his vast experience, but because he would become the first Black executive editor of the Post, which has wrestled with diversity issues. The weird thing was, people in the newsroom got the sense publisher Fred Ryan wasn’t particularly sold on the idea, even as former colleagues pushed Merida’s name. While the Soon-Shiongs were aggressively courting Merida, the outreach from his alma mater was surprisingly “passive,” as one source put it at the time.

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Back at ESPN, Pitaro had conversations with Merida about what it would take to keep him. At the same time, Merida was approached about the possibility of running ABC News, also owned by Disney, where network president James Goldston had recently stepped down. However, by midspring it was clear that Merida’s heart was in L.A. Disney chairman Bob Iger got on the phone with him to talk it all through. “I tried to retain him,” Iger told me, “discussing his future, which was bright, and the future of his business, but he seemed intent on returning to his newspaper roots and moving to Los Angeles. I loved working with Kevin, because he is smart, creative, and extremely thoughtful, and I was sorry to see him go.”

On paper, the L.A. Times arguably looked like the least enticing option. Leadership turnover was notoriously high. Digital subscriptions were lagging. The place was still reeling from complaints about the mistreatment of employees of color, as well as a workplace scandal that roiled its food section. In February, The Wall Street Journal reported that a sale was being explored. The Soon-Shiong family immediately countered that they had no such intentions, but Times journalists worried that the rumors would scare off top candidates like Merida, who told me Patrick Soon-Shiong “gave me his assurance” that he was committed. “I’m drawn to underdogs,” Merida said. “If you’re not leaning into challenges, what are the things that excite us and provide us with sparkle? What is it that lets us know we’re alive? We have a chance to reinvent the L.A. Times, to make it better. I would like to redefine what a modern newspaper is.” Merida later emailed to clarify, “We may be an underdog, based on perception. But our roster is loaded.” The roster is thrilled to have him. “This is a time of tremendous excitement,” said one journalist there.

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Back in the good old days, long before the L.A. Times was decimated, Otis Chandler built it into a national powerhouse. The Times has recaptured some of that mojo under the Soon-Shiongs, but Merida sounds like he’s more focused on expanding the publication’s journalism rather than worrying about whether it’s in the same ballpark as The New York Times and The Washington Post. “I want to get into partnerships, and documentaries, and broaden the podcast slate, and experiment in all of the forms you can experiment with,” he said. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the Golden State is full of major stories from climate change to the streaming wars. “You could argue that California is a country unto itself.”

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