Los Angeles Times Hires Its Next Top Editor: Kevin Merida, of ESPN

One of the biggest newspaper jobs goes to a groundbreaking journalist who spent two decades at The Washington Post.

Kevin Merida, the next executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, has held leadership positions at The Washington Post and ESPN.
Credit...Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images

After a six-month search, The Los Angeles Times announced on Monday that it had selected a seasoned journalist to take the publication deeper into its digital future and strengthen its news coverage: Kevin Merida, who spent more than two decades at The Washington Post before becoming an editor and senior vice president at ESPN.

The appointment of a new executive editor ends a much-talked-about search for the top newsroom job at the West Coast’s leading news organization, a competition that attracted some of the biggest names in journalism and was likened to “The Hunger Games.” Mr. Merida will start next month.

The Times has undergone a revival since it returned to local ownership in 2018 after nearly two decades of business difficulties and staff unrest when it was part of the Tribune newspaper chain. Mr. Merida becomes the paper’s second top editor since Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire biotech entrepreneur, and his wife, Michele B. Chan, bought it from Tribune for $500 million. The deal also included The San Diego Union-Tribune and other California publications.

“Kevin possesses a clear understanding of the rigor necessary for independent journalism and how to translate that journalism to multiple platforms,” Dr. Soon-Shiong and Ms. Chan said in a statement on Monday.

Mr. Merida succeeds Norman Pearlstine, the veteran editor whom Dr. Soon-Shiong installed to bring stability to The Times.

“I am excited to be the next executive editor of the L.A. Times, and will bring with me an open heart, a penchant for experimentation and a fiercely competitive spirit,” Mr. Merida said in a statement.

The Times expanded greatly thanks to Dr. Soon-Shiong’s investment, and it won three Pulitzer Prizes under Mr. Pearlstine — but the paper experienced sharp growing pains as its journalists complained that its leaders had not done enough to address a lack of diversity on its staff and in its news coverage. At the same time, it has struggled to meet the goals it had set for increasing the number of digital subscribers.

Mr. Merida, 64, was the first Black managing editor at The Post, a position he held from 2013 to 2015. During his time in that role, The Post won four Pulitzer Prizes. Last year he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists and was elected to the Pulitzer Prize Board in December.

Mr. Merida moved to ESPN in 2015 to lead The Undefeated, a site focused on the intersection of sports, race and culture. Some Black journalists at The Post followed him to ESPN, including Soraya Nadia McDonald, a Pulitzer finalist in criticism last year for her work at The Undefeated.

When Mr. Merida started at The Undefeated, it was a stalled digital project with an unhappy staff — a would-be publication that, even after a nearly two-year development period, existed only as a web page with links to 19 articles.

He got The Undefeated up and running, quickly establishing its editorial identity. The site’s relevance grew as prominent Black athletes embraced activism amid the rise of the social justice movement after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

In his first editor’s letter at The Undefeated, Mr. Merida held up the example of his father, Jesse Merida, as someone who refused to be defeated by pervasive racism and the limited opportunities that went with it.

His father, he wrote, had gotten a degree in geology at what is now Wichita State University and did not listen to those who advised him to go into teaching rather than trying for a career in the more closed-off world of science. He ended up “earning his living as a janitor at one point while waiting for his opportunity,” Mr. Merida wrote, and was finally hired as a technician with the U.S. Geological Survey, a job that led to a long career, among mostly white researchers, with the Smithsonian Institution.

At the Disney-owned ESPN, Mr. Merida became a close adviser to Jimmy Pitaro, the network’s chairman, and served as the chair of ESPN’s editorial board. He also played integral roles in its newsroom, helping oversee its investigative coverage and the television shows “E:60” and “Outside the Lines,” while also managing its standards team.

Mr. Merida, who was born in Wichita, Kan., grew up in the Washington area, where he still lives. He is married to the author Donna Britt, who has worked as a reporter and columnist at The Washington Post, USA Today and The Detroit Free Press.

He studied journalism at Boston University and started his career as a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal. After a decade at The Dallas Morning News, he joined The Post in 1993 as a congressional reporter.

He covered the 1996 presidential campaign as a national correspondent and the 2000 presidential campaign as a writer of long features for The Post’s Style section. He also put in stints as a magazine columnist and national editor before his 2013 promotion to managing editor for news and features.

Martin Baron, a journalism giant who became The Post’s executive editor in 2013, departed as the paper’s executive editor in February. The Post is expected to announce Mr. Baron’s successor soon.

Mr. Merida’s next assignment puts him in charge of a newspaper that has grown quickly under Dr. Soon-Shiong. Soon after taking over in 2018, the new owner moved the staff from its office in downtown Los Angeles to a 10-acre headquarters built for $100 million in El Segundo, not far from Los Angeles International Airport.

He allowed for the hiring of more than 150 journalists, greatly increasing the size of a newsroom that had shrunk considerably in the 18 years of Tribune ownership. And Dr. Soon-Shiong laid out grand ambitions for the publication when he said in an interview with National Public Radio that he planned to compete with The New York Times and The Washington Post and would make his paper into a national and international force.

The staff cheered in 2019 when The Times, long known for its anti-union stance, reached an agreement with the Los Angeles Times Guild, a newly formed union representing newsroom employees.

But while journalists at The Times prefer the new owner to Tribune, the Soon-Shiong years have had their storms.

Last summer, the paper published two articles on its internal troubles. The first, in June, reported that employees had accused Mr. Pearlstine and other company leaders of not doing enough to address racial disparities in the paper’s coverage and the makeup of its work force. The second, in August, headlined “L.A. Times shaken by a summer of turmoil and scandals,” described internal racial tensions and ethical lapses by a prominent reporter. Two weeks after it was published, Mr. Pearlstine, 78, announced his plan to step down.

In September, Dr. Soon-Shiong pledged in an essay in The Times that it would have a more diverse staff under his leadership. He wrote that the paper had, in its long history, “mirrored, and in some cases propagated, the biases and prejudices of the world it covers, reflecting and shaping attitudes that have contributed to social and economic inequity.”

“Today,” he continued, “we are beginning the process of acknowledging those biases of the past and taking positive action to affirm a commitment that our newsroom will not tolerate prejudice.”

The staff had a small shock in February when The Wall Street Journal reported that Dr. Soon-Shiong, who has said he has been working on a cure for cancer and other diseases when not watching over his newspapers, was exploring a sale of The Times and The San Diego Tribune. He shot down that report in posts on Twitter and other public statements. So did his daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.

“WSJ is 100% wrong,” Ms. Soon-Shiong wrote on Twitter on the day The Journal’s report was published.

The paper has also been frustrated in its efforts to enliven a sluggish digital subscription business. Mr. Pearlstine set a goal of hitting 300,000 digital subscribers by the end of 2019. In September last year, The Times reported that it had roughly 250,000 digital-only customers.

The long search for a new top editor was led by Karen Danziger of the executive recruitment firm Koller Search Partners. In a city centered on entertainment, chatter about the big newsroom job nudged aside the usual talk of streaming and stars. Los Angeles magazine likened the competition to “The Hunger Games” in a February article that called Mr. Merida an “out-of-towner with class” and gave him 2 to 1 odds on landing the job.

Internal candidates included a managing editor, Kimi Yoshino; the editorial page editor Sewell Chan; and the deputy managing editor for entertainment, audio and strategy, Julia Turner.

Company executives also spoke with Janice Min, a former editor of The Hollywood Reporter; Sally Buzbee, the top editor of The Associated Press; Anne Kornblut, who leads Facebook’s journalism initiatives; and two editors at The New York Times, Carolyn Ryan and Marc Lacey.

Ms. Yoshino and Scott Kraft, another managing editor, have run the newsroom since Mr. Pearlstine retired in December and will continue to oversee the paper until Mr. Merida takes over.

Ms. Soon-Shiong, the daughter of Dr. Soon-Shiong, said her family had developed “a strong personal connection” with Mr. Merida in recent months. “His unapologetic commitment to anti-racist journalism and the future of this industry is inspiring — and inspired,” she said.

Reporting was contributed by Ben Smith, Edmund Lee, Rachel Abrams and Kevin Draper.