‘There’s just no really good answers’: The LA Times struggles to explain mass layoffs

“Nothing seems strong anymore. The foundation does not feel sturdy.”
Jengod, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Kevin Merida was down the hall. On Thursday, the editor of the West Coast’s biggest newspaper fielded questions from his staff from a separate room on the same floor of the building. He spoke via webinar. 

Los Angeles Times staff found themselves repeating the same questions at an emergency all-hands meeting. Eventually, some did so through tears.

Their questions: 

Why didn’t management give a heads-up to the union about Wednesday’s proposed lay-off notices to as many as 73 newsroom employees, which largely spares reporters but potentially decimates its digital teams? 

Why did people of color look to be more impacted, with the newsroom poised to lose its only Spanish-speaking photographers? 

And how could a digital-first media outlet turn its back on the audio producers and audience engagement editors driving its work? 

By the time the 11 a.m. webinar ended after noon, those questions and more went unanswered, according to interviews with three Times staff members who described a meeting that boiled with anger, with people occasionally cutting Executive Editor Kevin Merida off during his responses. Later that day, Merida took full ownership of the decision that L.A. Times Guild leaders have deemed “a case study in bad faith.”

But staff at the all-hands meeting said Merida’s responses that morning left it unclear as to who else in management played a part in the paper’s first large spate of layoffs since Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and his wife, Michele, bought the Times from Tribune Publishing five years ago. For longtime staff members, the layoff proposals echo a more precarious newsroom era under prior ownership — one of instability, cuts, and executive turnover.

Maneeza Iqbal said she got her layoff notice at 8:20 a.m. on Wednesday, in a Thursday phone interview. 

“Multiple people were not able to ask their questions when management cut off the meeting,” said Iqbal, an audience engagement editor for the Times, of the Thursday all-hands webinar.

When it ended, staff members, feeling the distance between themselves and Merida, walked over to his room and watched him through the glass — a show of disapproval and insistence on prying loose some more answers. 

“I use the words ‘cut off’ very deliberately,” said Iqbal, also a leader at the newsroom’s union, the L.A. Times Guild. “Because they could have kept going.”

Out of Thursday’s meeting, the general feeling among staff — according to three employees, two of whom asked not to be named for fear of retaliation — was that the layoffs were either a callous decision by management or a precursor to an even bigger problem, still brewing.

Merida said the Times was facing a budget gap of “tens of millions of dollars,” which drove the layoffs decision. But it was unclear to staff why this change happened suddenly and without any advance warning. 

​​“Where’s the trust? That’s what happened — the trust of the people that work underneath management has been shaken to the core,” Iqbal said. 

“Nothing seems strong anymore. The foundation does not feel sturdy.”

Most of the cut roles were staffed by employees of color

For more than 12 non-Guild-represented members, Wednesday was their last day. 

“We have made the difficult decision to undergo a reorganization and eliminate certain positions within the company,” Manning, the Times spokesperson, wrote in the Thursday email. “The hardest decisions to make are those that impact our employees, and we are not taking this action lightly.”

But guild leaders are now scrambling to save as many jobs as they can, since nothing is final yet.

The union has 30 days to bargain with the company on issues pertaining to the layoffs, like severance, buy-out rules, and newsroom cost-saving measures. In the first 14 days, the company has to send out buy-out notices. 

Most of the cut roles were staffed by employees of color, particularly on the audio, audience engagement, copy editing, and photography teams. Of those employees, 19 are Latine, 11 Asian American, four Black, and five employees who identify as two or more races. No one on the masthead lost their jobs, and reporters were largely spared.

The layoffs also initially threatened the Times’ only Spanish-speaking photographers. However, a Thursday night email update Iqbal shared with The Objective, sent from union leadership to members reports that one photo job has already been saved due to pressure, with a manager volunteering to leave in the photographer’s stead.

“They could have come to us first and they could have done it differently,” Iqbal said. “The company is priding themselves in the fact they’re following the contract.”

“They’re following the bare minimum.”

Since the Wednesday announcement, the union’s bargaining committee has passed a newsroom-wide proposal to management that employees be eligible for voluntary severance — and have asked bosses to accept 50% of those who apply for it, according to the union’s email update. 

Among the largest potential casualties is Iqbal’s team — “a four-person team” that managed the Times’ biggest social media accounts across platforms like Facebook and Reddit and knew, she said, how “to change on a dime” based on factors like “user behavior.”

“That team is gone,” she said. Also axed were employees who “work with reporters and editors to build the layout of these stories to make it user-friendly, engaging” — the news desk team handling the Times’ homepage and breaking news alerts.

The potential cuts threaten to sever two crucial connections between reporters and audiences coming across the West Coast paper of record: 

Digital experts and bilingual staff

The layoffs arrived more than six months after the expiration of the employees’ last labor agreement. Negotiations around a new contract started in September, and the Guild says its bargaining committee has met with management representatives “more than two dozen times.”

“Executive editor Kevin Merida has attended twice. No managing editor, deputy managing editor, or section editor has ever participated,” the Guild wrote in a June 8 letter to management, adding that “this layoff proposal comes after months of little progress in contract talks.”

The Guild’s letter alleges that company lawyers “have resorted to intimidation tactics to try to keep us from observing our contract talks.”

Also on June 8, union leaders filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Manning said in the Thursday night email that the company’s management team is following both the Guild contract and California employment law in carrying out layoffs. 

“The management and Guild bargaining teams are in active discussions regarding the layoffs, so I am not able to comment in detail about certain things that may change during the first 14 days of the 30-day notice period,” she wrote. “Guild-represented employees who are part of the layoff and the Guild were provided with a 30-day notice yesterday. 

‘There’s just no really good answers’

Newsroom management didn’t initially plan to make themselves available for employees’ questions until five days after they gave layoff notices on Wednesday, a day when some staffers were on their honeymoon or riding high off Pulitzer Prize-winning work and ambitious, newly-minted audio projects. 

After an outpouring of anger and frustration on Wednesday, newsroom management rescheduled their meeting to the following morning.

“We looked at everything, in terms of cost-cutting,” the Guild reported Merida saying during the Thursday meeting, which took place via webinar, with Merida taking questions from a separate room on the newsroom’s seventh floor.

The newsroom Guild says management never raised the possibility of layoffs in advance of the Wednesday notices, and that buyouts were never offered before the proposals were announced. 

“There’s just no really good answers,” Merida told employees that morning. 

Manning added that Merida “expects to meet with staff in large and small groups on an ongoing basis as we continue working through this.”

When the Soon-Shiong family purchased the paper, the Times had just 125,000 digital subscribers, it has reported, adding that after millions in investments and the addition of 150 journalists, the paper “was making strong gains in revenue by early 2020.”

Things hit a wrench with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Times reported — something which dealt a blow to the paper’s advertising revenues. The Guild in its June 8 letter says it has “a track record of finding solutions to newsroom budget problems.”

“In the depths of the pandemic financial crisis in 2020, Guild leadership proposed an innovative work-sharing plan to Times management that averted 84 newsroom layoffs,” the Guild letter reads.

But like the Times, other outlets have similarly announced layoffs or folded, citing financial struggles and a need to cut jobs as they’ve aimed to rebound from the early pandemic’s impact and navigate the current economic landscape. While staff remain concerned about the paper’s future ownership, representatives for the paper have consistently said the family has no plans to sell the paper or make any other significant staffing changes.  In a Thursday night email, Times spokesperson Hillary Manning wrote, “There are no plans for the Los Angeles Times to be sold. The current newsroom layoffs are the only ones planned.”

With her job hanging in the balance, Iqbal, who joined the Times in 2020, is now reflecting on the highlights of her career at the paper. 

“The coolest part of the job was working with my audience team,” she said. “I came in thinking I knew certain things. And I’ll be leaving in 30 days — hopefully not — a completely different person.”

She said her passion lies with the audience.

“I love connecting with audiences. I love seeing what they’re doing. And I love using that information to determine, ‘Hey, people are asking this question,’” she said.  

Now — as a member of the Guild — she finds herself responsible for another audience entirely:

Times staff looking for clarity. 

“Let’s give them the answer.’” 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter covering north/central Orange County, as well as broader regional issues around law enforcement, transportation, the environment, the OC Fair, and Little Saigon.

This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy edits by Gabe Schneider.

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