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Los Angeles Times newsroom employees to vote on unionizing

The Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A. Mae Ryan/KPCC

Journalists at the Los Angeles Times will vote Thursday on whether to form a union for the first time in the paper's 136-year history.

The organizing campaign has been driven by fears that years of job cuts will continue in 2018. There are also growing concerns about the paper's new leadership and its commitment to journalism, as recent staff meetings with the paper's new editor-in-chief have reflected.

The Times may not have big movies out about its blockbuster exposes, yet it is one of the proudest news organizations in the country, boasting the largest newsroom west of the Potomac River.

"All those decades, we went without unions when we were owned by the Chandler family," said Matthew Pearce, a national reporter for the LA Times. "It worked for people because, you know, it was a paternal relationship. We were part of the Chandler family in a sense."

Pearce is one of the chief internal organizers for the establishment of the union there. The Chandlers hated organized labor, and the newspaper was once known as the velvet coffin — a place so rich with pay and benefits that few wanted to leave or to start a union. That was before the cuts.

"We don't have that relationship with our current ownership, you know? It's — they take, and we give. And that's just not working for people anymore," Pearce said.

The LA Times is now owned by Tronc, comprised of what used to be the Tribune Company's newspapers. Tronc's chairman alienated staff by giving himself a $5 million-a-year consulting fee.

The paper's new editor-in-chief, Lewis D'Vorkin, had jobs at The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. He later was an executive at AOL, and he led Forbes magazine into a digital model with a network of contributors. Some writers were paid, others unpaid. Still others paid Forbes for the right to post essays.

D'Vorkin introduced himself to Times staff in early November at a meeting attended by more than 100 journalists. NPR obtained audio tapes of that meeting from an attendee (not Pearce).

"The No. 1 priority that we have at the LA Times is nothing short of digital transformation. We need to be part of the digital world as it's evolving," D'Vorkin told those assembled.

D'Vorkin was asked about the fallout of a Times project from a few months earlier.

The LA Times had documented big financial breaks given to Disney by the city of Anaheim — home to Disneyland. The studio banned the Times' movie critics and reporters from advance screenings of its movies, a blow for Hollywood's hometown daily. Its new CEO, Ross Levinsohn, has said the LA Times should own entertainment coverage nationally. D'Vorkin had met with Disney executives. The company restored access after having what it called productive discussions with the Times.

Journalists repeatedly pressed D'Vorkin at that meeting in early November on what that meant.

"There was nothing to be defensive about," D'Vorkin said. "There was no — there are no inaccuracies in this story. There was no claim of inaccuracies. So I move forward to the next thing because I want to be on the offense and not the defense. That's how I answer that question."

One reporter complained that D'Vorkin hadn't publicly defended the paper's coverage and allowed the entertainment reporters to be pawns. He didn't yield an inch.

"There was a question asked of me — did I make a concession? The answer is no. I listened to what they had to say," D'Vorkin said.

Reporters asked, then why did the LA Times carry only a brief account of the dispute? D'Vorkin replied he had little appetite to talk more about a media spat.

However, several days later, after The New York Times covered the disagreement with Disney, D'Vorkin called staffers to a second meeting, at which he said he would reveal a startling piece of information. D'Vorkin told staffers his remarks at the first meeting had been recorded and leaked to The New York Times.

"Clearly someone here is not playing by the rules of ethical behavior as far as I'm concerned," he said.

D'Vorkin then suggested one of his journalists had broken state law in recording that first meeting, though more than 100 people were present. Nobody had my consent, D'Vorkin said.

"At its core, it was unethical. And frankly, I think it showed a degree that whoever was involved was morally bankrupt," D'Vorkin said, even though reporters for the LA Times have also relied on leaked recordings for their reports.

D'Vorkin declined to respond to detailed questions, directing NPR to two blog postings he had written about the paper's future. None of the half dozen journalists from the LA Times contacted for this report would speak about D'Vorkin on the record. They said they feared for their jobs as they had no union protection.

The vote will be taken Thursday and tallied on January 19.