The Los Angeles Times has named veteran journalist Kevin Merida as its top editor and tasked him with transforming the storied 139-year-old newspaper into a digital powerhouse that thrives for decades to come.
Monday’s announcement by the paper’s owners, Dr. Patrick and Michele Soon-Shiong, caps a five-month search for an executive editor to lead the roughly 500-person newsroom and accelerate its digital shift as readers increasingly get news on their phones and social media feeds instead of a newspaper tossed in the driveway.
Since 2015, Merida has been editor in chief of the Undefeated, the award-winning ESPN division that plumbs the intersection of race, culture and sports. During his tenure at ESPN, Merida also oversaw the sports behemoth’s investigative/news enterprise unit, the TV shows “E:60” and “Outside the Lines,” and was chairman of ESPN’s Editorial Board.
Merida also spent three decades in traditional newsrooms, including 22 years at the Washington Post, where he rose to managing editor in charge of news, features and the universal news desk. He was deeply involved in the Post’s online push that led to sustained subscriber growth, gaining insights that could prove valuable to his success at The Times.
“I’m thrilled to be joining the Los Angeles Times. I’m going to do everything I can to make this the greatest media outlet for the people of California, of L.A. — and beyond,” Merida said in an interview. “I see nothing but opportunity. I think this can be the most innovative media company in the country.”
Merida becomes the 19th editor since The Times sprung to life in December 1881. He will take the helm of the newsroom in June, becoming the third person of color to steer the largest news organization in the West.
His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, build a campus in El Segundo, upgrade the paper’s technology and cover financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.
Merida, 64, succeeds Norman Pearlstine, who stepped down in December, telling staff that he had achieved his goal of putting “a team in place that could assure The Times’ revival.” Pearlstine, 78, arrived in 2018 when the Soon-Shiong family returned the paper to local control. During his tenure, The Times embarked on an unprecedented hiring spree, won three Pulitzer Prizes and implemented the newsroom’s first union contract. The paper also experienced a painful self-examination last summer of its historic failings in its treatment of people of color in its news pages and within the organization itself.
Merida quickly emerged as front-runner for the job because of his reputation as a thoughtful journalist with a rare combination of experience at legacy print publications, television and running a digital upstart. He is widely respected among colleagues and in the news industry.
Last year’s financial volatility sharpened the company’s focus on attracting — and retaining — digital subscribers to become less reliant on a shrinking pool of print subscribers and advertisers. The paper has 327,250 Sunday print subscribers.
The Times now averages 45 million unique visitors monthly to its digital site, and it has more than doubled its online subscribers in the last two years. But the paper has fallen well short of the ambitious goals for digital customers set by Soon-Shiong, who would like to see the organization draw as many as 3 million subscribers.
The Times has nearly 400,000 digital-only subscribers, which includes those who subscribe through Apple News+, the Cupertino tech giant’s paid subscription news service. It lags far behind major East Coast papers: The New York Times boasts more than 6 million digital subscribers and the Washington Post has nearly 3 million.