A dispute between The Los Angeles Times and the Walt Disney Company has ignited a battle between the paper’s employees and its new top management.
On the morning of Nov. 3, the newspaper published a note to readers revealing that Disney had barred its journalists from attending advance film screenings in response to a Times investigation into the entertainment company’s business ties with Anaheim, Calif. Outrage over Disney’s move was soon rocketing around social media.
During a daily meeting attended by roughly a dozen editors, a staff member proposed publicizing the two-part investigative series that had precipitated the ban. But Lewis D’Vorkin, the recently installed editor in chief of The Times, flatly rejected the idea, according to several employees with knowledge of the discussion.
Later, some journalists received messages by email and Slack warning them against retweeting any praise of Times stories.
Many people in the newsroom interpreted Mr. D’Vorkin’s instructions as an attempt to keep attention away from a series displeasing to a powerful company that is one of the newspaper’s advertisers.
On the surface, Mr. D’Vorkin’s social media directive worked: Disney’s aggressive move stirred a backlash among critics’ organizations and other news outlets, and last Tuesday the company reversed its decision after what it described in a statement as “productive discussions with the newly installed leadership” at the paper.
The statement, though, heightened the skepticism of some employees, who questioned whether the social media edict was part of a deal Mr. D’Vorkin had struck with Disney.
In a telephone interview on Friday, Mr. D’Vorkin, 65, said he had had a “nice conversation” with Disney, adding that there was no deal.
“I listened to their point of view, they listened to what I felt was our point of view, and we agreed to move forward and report and work with each other as the two companies have done for decades,” Mr. D’Vorkin said.
The warnings about social media were intended to remind the staff to “stay away from opinion and stay away from drama,” he said.
Times employees have long expressed frustration with management, having endured years of newsroom turmoil, a wider downturn in the newspaper industry and a corporate parent that has cut resources. In August, the previous top editors were ousted after an internal investigation prompted in part by complaints about their handling of an investigative story on a former dean at the University of Southern California’s medical school.
Many staff members were cautiously optimistic that the new leaders brought in by the parent company, Tronc, would return the newspaper to financial strength and encourage the kind of journalistic excellence that has been rewarded with 44 Pulitzer Prizes. But in interviews, numerous employees at The Times described a newsroom still on edge. (The employees spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal from the company.)
Ross Levinsohn, the new publisher of The Times, said he hoped the staff would stop dwelling on the past. “There’s been so much energy devoted to tearing down this place from within these walls that I think over the years we’ve missed opportunities to grow this place,” Mr. Levinsohn, 54, said.
Mr. D’Vorkin, who joined the newspaper as editor in chief on Nov. 1, said he valued investigative journalism, saying he “grew up with media royalty,” including Katharine Graham, the famed publisher of The Washington Post, and Norman Pearlstine, a former top editor at Time Inc. and The Wall Street Journal.
“I learned at the feet of all these people,” he said, “and I’m hoping that I can bring those things that I learned and make a difference here.”
A media veteran who has worked at Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The New York Times, Mr. D’Vorkin was handpicked by Mr. Levinsohn. He has a somewhat unusual background for someone in his position. Before he joined The Los Angeles Times, Mr. D’Vorkin helped start the celebrity news site TMZ, and as the chief products officer at Forbes, he broadened the company’s native advertising offerings.
The editor and publisher had worked together previously: Mr. Levinsohn was a partner at a venture capital firm, Fuse Capital, that invested in a journalism company Mr. D’Vorkin started in the late 2000s called True/Slant.
Times journalists remain proud of their work. In addition to the Disney series, published in September, they pointed to recent articles about sexual harassment accusations against the Hollywood figures James Toback and Brett Ratner. (The articles were reported before Mr. D’Vorkin’s arrival.)
Tronc, which also publishes The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun, is optimistic that its Los Angeles property will one day draw a national and even an international audience. For now, it remains a regional newspaper with a declining readership and revenue.
Print advertising revenue at The Times through early September was down 20 percent from last year, according to a person briefed on the company’s financials, and digital advertising revenue had fallen by roughly 5 percent in the same period. What was once a staff of more than 1,000 now numbers roughly 400.
Against this backdrop, unionization efforts at The Times have gained traction. Last week, some reporters plastered their cubicles with signs saying they supported the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America labor union.
Mr. Levinsohn, the publisher, said, “If the newsroom decides to unionize, that’s their call.” For now, he added, the leadership team is focused on building a new strategy and conveying that vision to employees.
During an all-staff meeting on Wednesday, Mr. D’Vorkin laid out his priorities, saying he wanted to focus on “digital transformation,” diversity in the newsroom and “great journalism,” according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.
The meeting grew contentious as employees peppered him with questions concerning the social media policy. Some asked why The Times had published only a few paragraphs on what had occurred between the newspaper and Disney, given the national attention it had drawn.
Mr. D’Vorkin replied that those few paragraphs were all that was required to tell the story. He also told the staff that he had made no concessions to Disney and dismissed suggestions that he should announce that to the public.
As the meeting drew to a close, Mr. D’Vorkin added, “Somehow, we are going to figure this out so we can move forward.”