Eighteen months since taking over what he likes to call “the largest newsroom west of the Potomac,” Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine said he’s committed to creating a great newsroom for journalists — and making sure his city gets the best of that arrangement.
Pearlstine was in St. Petersburg, Florida, this weekend for Poynter’s annual Bowtie Ball, in which he was honored with the 2019 Distinguished Service to Journalism Award. Poynter also honored Katie Couric with the 2019 Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism.
In an interview with Poynter before the ceremony, Pearlstine said that he worked alongside the team that wanted to unionize his newsroom.
“The leadership of the union and the editorial management team were absolutely in sync about the importance of journalism and the importance of making Los Angeles a place where great journalism and great journalists can feel they’re gonna make a home,” he said. “A lot of the negotiations were not about salary or benefits but what it takes to make a news staff productive.”
Pearlstine said he was familiar with union negotiations, and in fact as a labor writer for the Wall Street Journal’s Detroit bureau early in his career, actually helped write union bylaws.
“I never had an issue with the union,” he said. Referencing years of layoffs and attrition under previous L.A. Times owner Tribune Publishing, he added, “If I had lived through what they lived through in the years prior to (owner) Patrick (Soon-Shiong)’s acquisition, I’d feel the same need for that kind of protection.”
He said he was the 11th editor in 19 years at the L.A. Times, and came in as the fourth or fifth in nine months.
“That kind of turmoil has an impact on the people who work there.”
Pearlstine said the existential question at the L.A. Times is whether it’s a local, national or international publication.
“The answer is yes to all of that,” he said. “We’re really trying to produce content for Californians and people who think about California.”
He said that the 2020 election creates an opportunity to grow, as the issues that affect Californians are those that also impact America.
“If you think about the issues that divide us, they are also the issues that are so important to our city,” he said. “Homelessness, income inequality and its impact on housing, immigration, environment, education … these are all the subjects that cut across our community.”
He said there’s a great opportunity to create content that is attractive to people both inside and outside the region.
“We think we can get to 750,000 to a million subscribers. It’s going to take some work but at that level our economic picture will look a lot better than when Patrick bought it.”
Pearlstine later entertained a sold-out dinner crowd of about 550 at the Vinoy Hotel during a Q&A with Poynter President Neil Brown. Brown asked Pearlstine about his social relationship with Donald Trump in their earlier years.
“He came to my third wedding, but he didn’t invite me to his,” Pearlstine deadpanned. On a more serious note, Pearlstine said that Trump loves to complain about the press, but there’s a reason.
“The press is his cocaine,” Pearlstine said. “He is addicted to it. He can’t get enough of it, and that presents real challenges in terms of knowing how you cover him.”
He said Trump going from a marketer of real estate to a reality star on “The Apprentice” fundamentally changed him.
“That fixation on ratings that came from 14 seasons I think informs everything he does today,” Pearlstine said.
He closed by offering advice about reaching diverse communities.
“I think that the most important thing that we can do is really listen to the people we hope to serve. In doing so, we learn a great deal about what is valuable and what is important.”
Barbara Allen is the managing editor of poynter.org. She can be reached at email@example.com.