May 17, 2021

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ESPN’s Kevin Merida named L.A. Times executive editor – Los Angeles Times

10 min read

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.

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“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, who is Black, 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.

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

“And most importantly, his job is to move us into the digital arena,” Soon-Shiong said. “We want this paper to grow and be around for another 139 years.”

With Merida’s hiring, Soon-Shiong took a step toward delivering on a promise to readers last fall to increase newsroom diversity, which the biotech entrepreneur called “mission-critical for our business.”

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“Only a diverse newsroom can accurately tell this city’s stories,” Soon-Shiong wrote in his September letter, noting that a more inclusive newsroom was integral to providing stronger coverage of “Black, Latino, Asian and underrepresented communities.”

Because of the pandemic, the Soon-Shiong family didn’t meet in person with Merida, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. Instead, Soon-Shiong, his wife, Michele, and their daughter Nika conducted interviews with Merida via videoconference.

“There was an immediate chemistry,” Michele Soon-Shiong said. “We all felt it. The man possessed a confidence — it was a quiet confidence — and he was deeply thoughtful and, in his questions, he was intellectually curious. … He had all of the qualities that we were looking for.”

Michele Soon-Shiong said she also opened a dialogue with Merida’s wife, Donna Britt, an author and award-winning columnist. They spoke on videoconference and by phone. “It was delightful to get to know both of them,” Mrs. Soon-Shiong said, adding that she shared her vision for The Times’ Test Kitchen, which is under construction, and a planned gallery to showcase the paper’s rich history and artifacts.

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“We were all in sync,” she said.

Dr. Soon-Shiong added: “I’m grateful for the expertise that he will bring, and also for the opportunity to build great partnerships with the outside community, similar to what he has done at ESPN.”

Merida and his wife plan to relocate to Los Angeles in the coming months, along with their youngest son, Skye Merida, host and producer of the podcast “No Capes Required,” about comic book heroes. Their two older sons live in Los Angeles: screenwriter Justin Britt-Gibson (“The Strain,” “Counterpart”) and actor Darrell Britt-Gibson (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). They also have a grandson who will soon turn 3.

Merida will be tasked with overseeing the traditional journalism that readers find essential, and help widen the aperture to include video, podcasts, community events, including the annual Festival of Books, the LA Food Bowl and other lifestyle companions, such as a recent Southern California hiking guide.

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The Times has struggled to make the transition to digital media, hobbled by years of management turmoil, layoffs and underinvestment when it was owned by Tribune Publishing, which called itself Tronc for a couple of years.

The Soon-Shiongs invested heavily in rebuilding The Times. Then, last spring, tens of millions in anticipated advertising revenue evaporated when the government ordered businesses to shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19. Many of the paper’s advertising partners, some facing economic ruin, pulled back their ad buys. Although the revenue picture has improved in recent months, and in March The Times received a $10-million loan as part of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the paper still loses money.

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.

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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.

Such challenges were part of the allure of the job, Merida said.

“I was motivated by the challenge and by a little bit of that underdog spirit,” Merida said. “Also the commitment that Patrick and Michele, and their daughter Nika, have [to the paper] and their commitment to the area. Their story — growing up and living in South Africa and seeing all of the challenges of that country — and that they want an institution that is a reflection of the community.”

Long before Merida joined the Undefeated, he had spent decades analyzing how race shapes identities and perceptions — issues of critical importance to The Times and the nation.

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While at the Post, Merida was coordinating editor of an ambitious yearlong series of essays in 2006 that won a prestigious Peabody Award. Merida adapted those essays into the anthology book “Being a Black Man: At the Corner of Progress and Peril,” which was published the following year.

He has co-authored two other books: “Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas,” with his colleague Michael Fletcher in 2007; and “Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs,” with noted photo historian Deborah Willis in 2008.

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Born in Wichita, Kan., Merida grew up just outside Washington, D.C. His father, Jesse Merida, relocated to the East Coast in the early ‘60s to pursue a career in geology, which led him to a position at the Museum of Natural History.

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Merida said he grew up reading columns in the Washington Post by legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich (father of TV personality Maury Povich). Merida said that, as a teenager, he didn’t know much about journalism but was intrigued by Povich’s voice and columns that went beyond the scores and struck at the conscience of sports.

In 1973, Merida was among the first class of about 32,000 students who were bused from their neighborhoods in Prince George County, Maryland, in an effort to integrate the public schools. He recounted his conflicting emotions about his experience in an essay for the Post titled “Where That Bus Ride Took Me.”

Merida’s father died shortly before he graduated from high school. His mother, Doris, held the family together.

“My Mom is central,” Merida said, noting that she worked at the National Science Foundation, remarried, earned a degree in journalism mid-career from George Washington University and eventually served as NSF’s Freedom of Information officer. It was Doris Hill who encouraged her son to leave home for college.

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He went to Boston University, became the editor of the Black student newspaper and graduated with a journalism degree in 1979. He turned down an internship that summer at his hometown paper, the Post, to attend the Maynard Institute program for minority journalists at UC Berkeley, which he described as an incredibly valuable experience.

Merida launched his full-time reporting career later that year at an afternoon paper, the Milwaukee Journal. In 1983, he joined the Dallas Morning News and eventually became a White House correspondent during the George H.W. Bush administration. He returned to Dallas to be an editor before returning home to Washington.

In 1993, he joined the Post as a national political writer covering Congress amid the so-called Gingrich Revolution. He then shifted gears and began writing long-form features for the Style section, and later the Post magazine. His wife (a former West Coast bureau chief for USA Today based in L.A.) also worked at the Post; she had a popular syndicated column.

Merida said he has a deep love of writing, but throughout his career, he has found himself drawn into management.

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In 2001, he became the Post’s associate editor and its national editor in 2009. He led the paper’s coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign, the killing of Osama bin Laden, mass shootings and the battle over healthcare.

He was promoted to managing editor in 2013, becoming the first Black American in that high-level position. He oversaw much of the paper, including national, foreign, metro, investigations, business, sports, travel and food. While serving as managing editor, he helped lead the Post to four Pulitzer Prizes.

After being part of the team that retooled the paper’s digital platforms under billionaire owner Jeff Bezos, Merida decamped to Walt Disney Co. in November 2015. He acknowledged that he wrestled with leaving the Post for an uncertain future but said he has no regrets.

“I decided to disrupt myself,” Merida said. “I thought it would be interesting to try an entrepreneurial experiment and an entrepreneurial state of mind.”

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Many of the skills he sharpened at ESPN made him the top candidate for his new job.

Before he arrived at ESPN, as a senior vice president, the Undefeated project was in disarray. Six months later, in May 2016, the platform launched. In his inaugural column, Merida told readers the new venture would cover difficult topics of race with the same fearlessness that he so admired in his late father. Sixty years ago in Kansas, his father — a college graduate — took odd jobs, including as a janitor, while he kept applying for jobs in the field of geology.

Under his leadership, the Undefeated expanded across Disney with a portfolio that includes award-winning journalism, documentaries, two bestselling children’s books, TV specials, digital talk shows, music videos, albums and live events.

Merida’s team at the Undefeated is small — it has a staff of about 40 — but its writers have produced notable work. “The Undefeated,” written by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, based on a poem originally published on the site last year, won the Caldecott Medal as the top picture book for kids.

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Senior writer Jesse Washington’s story last year about Penn State men’s basketball coach Pat Chambers’ comment about “a noose’’ prompted an investigation by the university that led to the coach’s resignation.

Last month, the Undefeated scored three Emmy nominations, including two for the documentary “The Undefeated Presents: The Stop — Living, Driving and Dying While Black.”

Merida said he was grateful for his experience at ESPN, where he learned new skills, including how to build a business and immerse himself in aspects of the business to which traditional journalists aren’t always accustomed, such as marketing, audience demographics and customer relationships.

In 2000, he was named journalist of the year by the National Assn. of Black Journalists. He received the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism in 2018 and NABJ’s Chuck Stone Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. He serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board, Boston University Board of Trustees and the Kaiser Family Foundation Board of Trustees.

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While it is bittersweet to leave the Undefeated, Merida said the experience there whetted his appetite for this new challenge.

“We literally built a startup from the ground up inside a big company,” Merida said. “What we did there, in a lot of ways, made me want to come to the L.A. Times to transfer what I have learned and some of what we have done in the last five years — but to do it at what’s commonly called a newspaper: a big institutional place that’s been around for 139 years.”

“Broadening how we define a newspaper, which is important to me, is where I see a lot of opportunity,” Merida said.

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