Shockwaves were felt around the mediasphere yesterday as the L.A. Times announced its new editor-in-chief: Lewis D'Vorkin, the 65-year-old chief product officer of Forbes and a digital media guru.
"Lewis is a transformational and highly respected editor, and he is one of the leading digital innovators in the media industry," Times publisher Ross Levinsohn said in an email to staff. Levinsohn, who joined the Times in August, said the company looked at 80 candidates, and D'Vorkin was the "first choice."
It was a decision that surprised many.
"It’s a pretty counterintuitive choice," newspaper analyst Ken Doctor says. "He has a really interesting track record but not the apparent credentials to run the fourth largest newsroom in the country."
D'Vorkin has served as an editor at The New York Times and Newsweek, and held the prestigious job of page one editor at the Wall Street Journal. He also has worked at AOL and, according to his Forbes bio, TMZ.
But his claim to fame was transforming Forbes from a flailing financial magazine into an online behemoth that combines three types of stories: traditional journalism written by paid staff writers; a veritable tsunami of content written by thousands of pre-approved "contributors," who publish their work (unedited) themselves and are paid based on the traffic their stories generate (if at all); and sponsored or branded content — that is, advertising masquerading as news content.
The real Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor and blogger, has called Forbes.com "the definition of a diluted media brand."
"You have to be a very astute reader to know the difference between something a reporter got paid to write and someone promoting his stock strategy" on Forbes.com, media analyst Alan Mutter says. "As a classically trained, conservative journalist, I have a problem with that."
On the other hand, it is a model that appears to be working — at least at Forbes, and at least if your definition of "working" is turning a profit. It certainly is for D'Vorkin. The first sentence of his e-book, The Path Forward for the News Business, reads: "Journalism is a business."
The two biggest questions with D'Vorkin's appointment are whether he plans to bring the same model to the Los Angeles Times and whether that model can work at a major metropolitan newspaper.
"His approach is really about volume — click volume," says Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School and the former deputy publisher of the L.A. Times. "That will be a challenge for the cultural values of the institution."
"It's a corrupt model," says former Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky. "You’re basing the news on how much money you make. You can put a lot of things in there that drive traffic but that aren’t necessarily good from a news judgment perspective."
This line of criticism will be nothing new for D'Vorkin. Journalists, he said at a 2013 conference in New York, "need to understand the world is changing. It's hard for them to do that."
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Newspapers have traditionally been funded by subscriptions and advertising, both of which have been decimated by the internet. The New York Times and the Washington Post appear to have stabilized, but they are national newspapers with a much larger base of readers.
In the last decade or so, the Los Angeles Times has shifted its focus from the city to the region, in an attempt to be Southern California's paper of record. But its parent company, tronc, has signaled its own ambitions of becoming a major global online news organization, with the Times as its centerpiece. The choice of D'Vorkin appears to dovetail nicely with that.
If D'Vorkin tries to do at the Times what he did at Forbes, "It’s going to be a completely different newspaper," Mele says. "On the other hand, here's a guy who’s tried different things. I am profoundly in favor of trying new things in the daily news industry. So yes, it’s a shakeup. It’s an unusual thing. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so."
Or as D'Vorkin himself once said: "If you want to keep digging the same hole and not finding any oil, go for it. What we're trying to do is build a sustainable model."