NEW YORK – The Los Angeles Times on Monday said that Kevin Merida, who built ESPN's The Undefeated into a multi-media presence and spent a lengthy career in newspapers before that, will be its new executive editor.
Merida, 64, is being challenged by the newspaper's owners, Patrick and Michele Soon-Shiong, to speed its transition into a digital news leader.
“Kevin possesses a clear understanding of the rigor necessary for independent journalism and how to translate that journalism to multiple platforms," the newspaper's owners said in a statement. “He also shares our passion for the unique opportunity we have to build the L.A. Times into a media enterprise with a distinct West Coast point of view.”
Merida is moving to Los Angeles from Washington, where he spent 22 years at the Washington Post before joining ESPN in 2015. He also worked at the Dallas Morning News and Milwaukee Journal. The Post is searching for its own new leader following the retirement of Marty Baron.
Merida replaces Norman Pearlstine, who stepped down late last year.
The Times chose a Black editor as its leader following a period where the newspaper and other journalistic institutions have taken tough looks at their own diversity in both staffing and in who and what they cover. Last September, the newspaper published a lengthy apology for having “a blind spot, at worst an outright hostility” toward Los Angeles' nonwhite population.
The newspaper said then that 38% of its editorial journalists were journalists of color, and that “we know that is not nearly good enough.”
Merida was not made available for an interview. He said in a statement that he will bring “an open heart, a penchant for experimentation and a fiercely competitive spirit” to the job.
The Undefeated in a highly-regarded location for stories that intersect the world of race, culture and sports. But Merida has made it into more than a website, expanding its imprint into documentaries, a programming hub on Hulu, two children's books and even the imprint for two CDs of music associated with the Black power movement. It earned three Emmy nominations last month.
Merida told the L.A. Times that he wanted to apply some of what he learned at ESPN in essentially building a startup within a big company to his new job.
He's been a strong defender of journalistic values and has the people skills necessary to be a good manager, said Jesse Washington, senior writer at The Undefeated.
He created an atmosphere “that made us punch above our weight,” said Washington, co-author with John Thompson in “I Came As a Shadow,” the late Georgetown basketball coach's autobiography. “He's also very good at empowering his employees.”
In March, Merida spoke virtually to students at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism & Communication, urging them to be open to opportunities that come their way, even if it was not something they had previously considered, said Jacqueline Jones, a professor there.
“Kevin has the vision, the skill and the depth to master any situation in which he finds himself,” said Jones, who worked with Merida at the Post. “More importantly, though, he is the kind of leader folks want to work with. He is organized, thoughtful and focused and has the ability to make it seem effortless, the latter a skill I greatly admire.”
The Los Angeles Times isn’t the only news organization to look closely at diversity following last May’s death of George Floyd and the demonstrations that followed. In recent months, MSNBC hired Rashida Jones and ABC News selected Kim Godwin, both Black executives, to be their new leaders.
In going to a newspaper, Merida rejoins an industry with its own share of financial problems. The Post and The New York Times have shown there is a path toward creating a strong digital presence, but many other publications have suffered.
He and his wife, author Donna Britt, already have two sons in Los Angeles who work as a screenwriter and actor, and a third son who will move out to be with them. Merida starts his new job in June.