Tensions rise between the LA Times and its billionaire owner

Perhaps Soon-Shiong’s biggest breakthrough was the hiring of Merida. There was universal acclaim from the newsroom over the announcement. Soon-Shiong himself heralded it as a chance to bring stability to the paper — “to grow and be around for another 139 years” — and broaden ambition.

“His mandate will be to maintain the highest level of journalistic strength and find ways to grab the attention of our community,” Soon-Shiong said, “not just Los Angelenos but also readers in the western region and hopefully even the nation.”

No sooner did Soon-Shiong hail Merida’s hiring than he made his job more difficult. The owner did not call some of the other internal candidates to thank them for applying, according to a person familiar with the matter, creating some bitterness within the newsroom.

Merida appeared to understand that maintaining Soon-Shiong’s attention was a top priority. As LA Magazine noted, he moved into a Brentwood guest house across the street from Soon-Shiong. He also took on much of the responsibility for managing the relationship between the family and staff.

Both before Merida started and after he came on board, the paper was lauded for its work, including coverage of the rise-and-fall of superlawyer Tom Girardi and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika Jayne; for reporting on the deadly shooting on the set of the Alec Baldwin film “Rust”; for scrutiny of the Sheriff’s Department; and for coverage and major projects on climate change.

But creating the stable work environment that Soon-Shiong outlined has been elusive, particularly in the paper’s Washington bureau.

A fixture in political coverage, the DC office was celebrated when it brought on board Kimbriell Kelly, a Pulitzer-winning reporter at the Washington Post, to serve as a top editor in 2019. In the fall of 2020, Kelly was promoted to the bureau chief role. She became the first person of color, and only the second woman, to serve in that post.

Her directive was to expand the scope and impact of the bureau’s reporting. But her approach quickly created problems.

Shortly after the election, Kelly began butting heads with one of the bureau’s best known staffers, Jackie Calmes. Calms had taken over as White House editor around that time. But Kelly informed her that she wanted to hire her own deputy before making a decision about who would occupy the editor role permanently. On that call, according to four people with knowledge of the incident, Kelly told Calmes that her grievance over two recently deceased family members was affecting her work.

The friction escalated. When Calmes asked for two weeks of comp time in late January, Kelly said she had not authorized her to work extra hours for the preceding three months. That soon led to several Zoom calls with Kelly, as well as human resources and union representatives. On the first call, Kelly reiterated that she had not authorized Calmes’ extra work. Calmes responded by saying the bureau had been short-staffed during a news cycle that featured ongoing election objections and the January 6 riots and that she had to pick up the work.

People close to Kelly said Calmes was openly disrespectful. Kelly was a newcomer to the job and a Black woman joining a bureau that was largely white and male. Calms, for her part, refused to speak with Kelly without a union representative present. In early summer, Kelly filed a disciplinary action accusing Calmes of insubordination and suggesting it could lead to her termination.

Ultimately, both sides moved on after fellow DC staffers wrote a letter to Kelly encouraging her to retract her insubordination accusation, which she did.

Eventually, Calmes shifted from an editorial role under Kelly to the paper’s opinion section. Calms declined to comment beyond saying she had never shown any disrespect to Kelly.

In a statement to POLITICO, Kelly did not directly address the Calmes incident, but touted the changes she’s brought to the bureau, including increasing diversity among staff covering the White House and Congress.

“We’ve … built one of Washington’s most inclusive reporting staffs as we work to realize the shared vision of Kevin Merida and the Soon-Shiong family for a new LA Times. Like many news organizations, we have had staffing changes,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud to work with our amazing staff, and I look forward to continuing to lead our Washington coverage and serving our LA Times audiences everywhere.”

Frustration in the office has lingered, however. At least eight journalists out of a staff of 30 have left the bureau since Kelly took over, though she noted that eight had been added “within the last year.”

This March, the DC bureau held a virtual meeting with Merida and Kelly in which higher-ups were grilled about staff leaving. One staffer told him the exodus was a “five-alarm fire.” Merida didn’t address how the paper was handling the departures, save to say he cared about Washington coverage and knew the bureau was having issues, according to a person in the meeting.

“They continue to swing way above their weight and the LA Times still covers stories that others in Washington do not,” said Bob Drogin, the paper’s former deputy Washington bureau chief who spent nearly 38 years at the paper. But, he added, “It’s unfortunate that there’s been so much turmoil in the bureau over the last two years … I fear it has distracted from the core mission of the Washington bureau, and the loss of so many experienced and talented reporters clearly has hurt the daily production of news.”

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