When Norman Pearlstine took over as executive editor of The Los Angeles Times in June 2018, the 137-year-old newspaper was struggling financially, grappling with labor unions, and bleeding ad revenue and readers.
Billionaire investor Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who had just paid $500 million to purchase the daily paper from the Chicago-based Tribune Publishing Co., set a clear mandate for Pearlstine: Create content that readers value — and are willing to pay for.
Pearlstine, who was previously vice chairman of Time Inc. and executive editor of The Wall Street Journal, has hired over 125 employees and the paper just received another Pulitzer Prize. Pearlstine spoke to NBC News about the new direction of the paper, the challenges of covering the entertainment industry, and the editorial impact of being owned by an investor, not a publishing company.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
Q: How urgently does the new owner want to see a return on his investment?
A: It’s a thrill to be here with an owner who wants to run The Los Angeles Times as a business but didn’t buy it with return on investment as his sole consideration. He has been passionate about news and passionate about public service and willing to do some exciting new things.
He recognizes that it’s a long-term investment and a lot of things have to happen when an entity like The Los Angeles Times goes from being part of an organization that has a whole different set of objectives. So he’s impatient on a day-to-day basis, but has an understanding that it takes a while to turn something like this around. We’re increasing expenses at a time when the legacy print business continues to be in a secular decline.
Q: So your priorities are less about paid subscriptions and the money side of it than making sure there is an editorial product first and foremost?
A: We’re betting that the two have a relationship. We’re very much going to begin by asking what does The Los Angeles Times have license to do, where can we create content that our audience values and is willing to pay for. And we’re much more interested in the number of people who convert to subscribers after spending time with our content than just impressions for their own sake.
Our current digital subscription number is about 162,000 — which is large, relative to urban newspapers and small, relative to national papers. Patrick [Soon-Shiong] has laid down a very aggressive challenge for us in terms of growing digital subscribers — he had a long term goal of 4 million subscribers.
Q: In what other ways is The Los Angeles Times earning revenue?
A: At this point, we still get a lot of revenue from print, it’s a big Sunday edition. The daily edition is also pretty good-sized. Beyond that, we’d like to get more involved with television. We’ve been gratified by the numbers that [our prime-time news magazine show on] Spectrum has been putting out that suggests we’ve been well-received by their audience. They’re not all of Southern California for sure, so we need to think about ways to expand in television. We’re also getting more aggressive with podcasts.
Q: Technology companies have been the pride of California for decades, but that's no longer a positive business story. How has The Los Angeles Times gone about covering the downside of big tech?
A: I am interested in the broader issues that affect our audiences, and they cover the gamut from personal technology to privacy to anti-trust. Digital has such impact on every industry. Our recent story on Huawei is one of the most interesting stories at multiple levels. How the Uber IPO [plays out] will say not only a lot about this company but about everything from mobility to where the gig economy is going.
Q: The Los Angeles Times' film critic was banned from reviewing Disney movies after your paper reported on the company's Anaheim tax breaks. What are your thoughts on dealing with big advertisers and negative coverage in the entertainment industry?
A: The coverage out of Anaheim preceded me. It’s coverage I have educated myself about and I thought was fine and appropriate. We’re talking about the biggest company in Southern California, headquartered here, with 300,000 employees. With Bob Iger as CEO, having done Pixar, Lucas, Marvel, Fox — it is a remarkable record — so you want to cover his investor day and the opening of a theme park in Shanghai. You want to treat it as a company that can create news in multiple ways in multiple places. It’s not about being pro or anti, it’s just about the story.