Next steps for the LA Times

The Los Angeles Times officially traded hands yesterday from Tronc to biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who named Norman Pearlstine as the new Executive Editor. Pearlstine had retired as Vice Chairman of Time Inc as it closed its sale to Meredith Corp, following 50 years in roles across Time, Bloomberg, the WSJ, and Forbes.

In the announcement, the LA Times refers to him as a “fixture of the New York media circles.” (link)

The hire doesn’t suggest a bold modernization is in the works nor that a truly distinct California brand will soon differentiate the publication. But, I think it’s fair to say that Soon-Shiong is approaching this with a long time horizon and as a cause to subsidize more than a market opportunity to seize.

The first move seems to be stabilizing a ship that’s undergone constant shifts and executive turnover in the name of modernization (by Tronc), plus building the LA Times’ prestige in journalism circles and in the Acela-riding politics & finance sphere.

As it vies for comparison next to the NYT and WaPo as a national force, it will look to evolve in a similar vein to those organizations. Expect a determined shift to digital subscriptions, experimentation with video, podcasts, news chatbots, etc. Expect more interviews and op-eds with national VIPs too. I wouldn’t expect the LA Times to pioneer new concepts in the media industry during this first phase though; it’s securing its foundations.

My question/concern is whether a publication that cares so much about becoming a favorite child of the “New York media circles” can craft a sufficiently unique brand to gain a national following on equal footing to the NYT and WaPo. Consumers don’t need a third-place also-ran, especially if it’s asking for a subscription. The LA Times needs to own a perspective and style that stands apart from the East Coast establishment papers…what would a uniquely California view of the world be?

This is a post for another time, but I think there’s actually a major market opportunity presented by the fact that political coverage (and business coverage to a lesser extent) is locked within a fixed framework in this country…the language we use around Right and Left, the norms we pretend exist…there’s an opportunity for a politcal news organization to swoop in and engage based on an entirely different framework.

The other risk is rushing too fast to offer a little bit of everything to everyone (as a national publication) before it has gained a dominant position anywhere. The NYT is becoming a diversified bundle and it is a smart strategy, but that’s because it has long owned the turf of the most prestigious publication of national scope. I know lots of Los Angelenos who pay for the NYT; I couldn’t name anyone (at least under 35) who has an LA Times subscription. You need to win somewhere before you can win everywhere.

I’m also intrigued to see how Pearlstine attacks business coverage, which is functionally non-existent at the LA Times. You would think the LA Times would try to own coverage of industries anchored in California like entertainment, tech, aerospace, and agriculture but it doesn’t even compete. Businesspeople pay for subscriptions, pay to attent conferences, etc. though…it’s an important audience for the LA Times to start engaging. And its not going to beat the NYT, WSJ, or FT at insider coverage of finance.

Congrats to Pearlstine on the new gig. As a proud Los Angeleno, I look forward to seeing what he has in store.