Los Angeles Times, Searching for Stability, Names Norman Pearlstine Top Editor

Norman Pearlstine previously served in top editorial positions at The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc. and Bloomberg.

LOS ANGELES — On his first day as the owner of The Los Angeles Times, the billionaire biotech executive Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, hoping to bring stability to a newsroom bruised in recent years by steep staffing cuts and tumultuous leadership changes, named Norman Pearlstine as the newspaper’s top editor.

In turning to Mr. Pearlstine, 75, who has led major news organizations like Time Inc., Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Soon-Shiong was sending a message to the newspaper’s beleaguered staff that he was emphasizing traditional journalistic values and aimed to have The Los Angeles Times return to the top echelon of American news outlets.

“He’s the perfect person to guide us into this new era,” Dr. Soon-Shiong said in an interview Monday morning, as he sat in traffic on his way to The Los Angeles Times’s office to make the announcement.

From the start, Dr. Soon-Shiong, who in February announced that he would purchase the newspaper for $500 million, had promised to choose a prominent editor who would be well respected by the newsroom. For months he had sounded out a range of figures in journalism, including Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, and Martin Baron, the editor of The Washington Post, seeking advice on whom to hire and even offering them the job.

He started talking to Mr. Pearlstine shortly after he announced the deal, which closed Monday after a wire transfer went through to Tronc, the Chicago-based company that had owned the paper.

“I said over breakfast, ‘I really need your help,’” Dr. Soon-Shiong said, recalling that first meeting with Mr. Pearlstine after he decided to buy the paper.

At first, Mr. Pearlstine served as an adviser to Dr. Soon-Shiong, helping him identify possible candidates for the top job. But as their relationship evolved, Dr. Soon-Shiong came to see him as the right choice to stabilize the newsroom.

Over his half-century career, Mr. Pearlstine has held some of the most prestigious positions in journalism. He was the executive editor of Forbes magazine for two years in the late 1970s. He was the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal from 1983 to 1991 and then the paper’s top editor for a year. He was the editor in chief of Time Inc. for a decade, until 2005, overseeing prominent magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly. He was later the chief content officer for Bloomberg and then returned to Time Inc. for a short time before retiring.

Although those jobs naturally brought him to Los Angeles over the years, Mr. Pearlstine has for decades been a Manhattan mainstay, hosting dinners and enjoying power lunches at Michael’s restaurant. And despite boasting one of the most notable résumés in the industry, he surprised some by stepping back into the fray of daily journalism. With his years of experience and deep connections to most of the powers in the industry, he is expected to recruit new talent and develop a leadership bench to whom he can eventually turn the paper over.

“There’s been a lot of attrition, a lot of talent has walked out the door,” Mr. Pearlstine said in an interview. In meetings with the staff in recent weeks, “what I heard was a lot of frustration, a lot of fatigue,” he added. “A lot of problems, but none that can’t be addressed by a lot of care, of listening.”

In recent years, as the disruptions of the digital age continued to pummel the newspaper industry, Tronc made a number of awkward attempts to reshape The Los Angeles Times. The company, in a widely ridiculed move, changed its name from Tribune Publishing to Tronc — short for Tribune Online Content — in 2016, and tried to push a technology-driven approach to journalism. Its aim to “funnel” its journalism to a global audience was met with skepticism, and the paper has had three different top editors in the past year. (On Monday, the company was reportedly considering changing its name again.)

So the newsroom viewed the emergence of Dr. Soon-Shiong as a new owner with relief.

“The message he’s trying to send is ‘I stand by the tenets of this industry,’” John Geddes, a former editor at The New York Times who worked with Mr. Pearlstine at The Wall Street Journal, said of Dr. Soon-Shiong.

The appointment of Mr. Pearlstine, who was introduced to the newsroom Monday morning, was widely applauded by members of the staff. On Twitter, one of them called finally being free of Tronc “Liberation Day.” Another wrote, “Hallelujah.” Mr. Pearlstine is known to many of them already, thanks to the recent meetings.

“In those conversations, he showed a pretty granular grasp of the newsroom’s internal dynamics,” said Matt Pearce, a national reporter at the paper who is also the vice chairman of its union, the Los Angeles Times Guild.

“People like him,” Mr. Pearce added. “He’s met with a ton of us behind the scenes and has come off as smart and approachable.”

Dr. Soon-Shiong, who will take on the role of executive chairman at the paper, also said he immediately planned to invest $150 million in building a 10-acre campus for the newspaper in El Segundo, an area near the Los Angeles airport, that will include a museum to honor the newspaper’s past. The property will also include event space and a state-of-the-art studio for producing podcasts and documentaries.

The staff will begin moving there in July, vacating the downtown Art Deco headquarters, the paper’s home since 1935 and a signature building in the Los Angeles skyline.

Dr. Soon-Shiong also said that under Mr. Pearlstine the newspaper would start hiring new journalists, adding, “My quest is to get the best talent.”

Dr. Soon-Shiong’s acquisition of the newspaper returns it to local control after 18 years of out-of-town management. In 2000, the Chandler family, which had owned the paper for decades, sold it to the Tribune Company. As it went through other iterations of management, including the real estate tycoon Sam Zell and hedge funds, the once storied paper fell into disrepair with steep staff cuts and, at times, a frat-house culture that further diminished morale.

In its heyday, the newspaper was an essential institution in the city, helping bind together a vast metropolis. In the 1960s and 1970s, under the guidance of Otis Chandler, the paper expanded nationally and internationally, earning a place among the country’s greatest newspapers.

“If I could speak for Otis Chandler, who I worked for for a number of years, Otis would be very proud of this choice,” said Tom Johnson, a former publisher of The Los Angeles Times, who consulted with Dr. Soon-Shiong as he prepared to take ownership of the paper.

Dr. Soon-Shiong said he wanted to see expanded coverage of Hollywood, sports and especially national issues that are resonant in California, particularly immigration.

“We should own this immigration issue, this horrific issue with the children,” he said.

Mr. Pearlstine said he would put a new focus on subjects like sports, technology, the environment and food. He noted that several years ago, The Los Angeles Times had a larger staff than The Washington Post, and is now less than half its rival’s size.

In purchasing the paper, Dr. Soon-Shiong, who in addition to his biotech businesses owns a piece of the Los Angeles Lakers, is positioning himself to become an important power broker in the city.

With its diversity — the population of Los Angeles is roughly half Latino — and a dynamic economy that is the world’s fifth largest, California hasn't been well served by its journalistic institutions in recent years, he said.

“The Times has not taken advantage of that,” he said. “I look at the paper, it’s a shadow of its former self. We need to fix that.”

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