August 1, 2019

During an all-staff meeting Thursday, Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine said he made a mistake not meeting with his newsroom before sending out a memo about the paper’s urgent digital subscription issue — a memo that left his staff furious.

One person who was in the meeting said Pearlstine opened by saying, “I have been in this business for so long, I thought I had made every mistake there was.”

Then, the 77-year-old said, “You’re never too old to f— up.”‬

On Tuesday I reported that Pearlstine and Managing Editor Scott Kraft sent a memo to the newsroom that painted a bleak picture about digital subscriptions. The Times was hoping to add 150,000 digital subscribers this year and it has only netted 13,000. The Times’ total number of digital subscribers is at 170,000, Kraft told me. The memo said improving digital subscriptions was now “Job One” for the rest of the year.

RELATED: Trouble at the Los Angeles Times: Memo says digital subscriptions way below goal

One Times staffer who asked not to be named said the memo caused a firestorm in the newsroom. This staffer said the memo did not disclose problems with the Times’ customer service and only made a passing reference to the technology and business departments. The memo, this staffer said, felt like a smackdown of the newsroom. Another staffer confirmed that the newsroom felt it was being blamed for what it believed were failings on the business side.

So to clear the air and set forth goals on how editorial, business and technology could work together to improve digital subscriptions and retention, the Times held Thursday’s meeting.

A person in the meeting said Pearlstine seemed “clearly embarrassed” by the events of the week. Pearlstine, who said the meeting was on-the-record, told staff he will start holding regular monthly meetings and brown bag lunches to hear employee concerns. This, the person in the meeting said, appears to be a first step in more open communication, which staffers say has been a problem in recent months. The rest of the meeting went over digital strategies.

Pearlstine told me Thursday evening after the meeting, “I felt just looking at our Slack comments yesterday that it was pretty clear that a lot of people felt that they would have rather heard about this emphasis and this push in a meeting like this rather than in a fairly brief email. They were thoughtful people who had some good ideas. And there were some people who were reading into the message things that I didn’t intend.”

When asked for a reaction to those who felt the newsroom was being picked on in the memo, Pearlstine said, “If the newsroom felt it was being picked on, that was a failure on my part, which is one of the reasons I wanted to have the meeting and apologize for not having the meeting first. I just felt with the introduction of a new content management system, the reorganization of management and a whole bunch of things happening on the business side … this was a good time to push us on digital subscriptions.

“In my own mind I don’t think we were picking on anyone, but if that’s how people perceived it, than that’s a mistake on my part.”

In an earlier phone interview that happened on Tuesday, Pearlstine told me he would not define the memo as “ominous,” but said the issue was urgent and the Times needed to move quickly.

Pearlstine admitted to me then that reaching 150,000 new digital subscribers likely won’t happen this year, but he remained optimistic that the long-term goal of having a million subscribers would eventually happen.

As a matter of disclosure, Poynter will honor Pearlstine in November with the 2019 Distinguished Service to Journalism Award. This award is bestowed upon an individual who has championed the goals and craft of journalism through actionable efforts or meritorious service. Pearlstine has been in journalism for more than 50 years as an editor and reporter for such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Time, Forbes and Bloomberg.

The Times has enjoyed a run of fairly good press before this week since billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong paid $500 million to purchase the paper from the Tribune Publishing Company in June of 2018. It has added more than 125 to the newsroom and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year.

This story has been updated to add quotes from Norman Pearlstine.

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  • As a digital subscriber, I find their on-line product much harder to use than NYT or WaPo and so I use it less. Perhaps if they fixed that, more people would subscribe.