In Person: The new publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Ross Levinsohn, lacks newspaper experience but his extensive time in the digital-media world could help the paper better adapt to vast industry changes.
LOS ANGELES — Ross Levinsohn is used to tough jobs. He tried to salvage a business out of social-media site Myspace, and managed Yahoo during a tumultuous period when the internet company was reeling from a management scandal and struggling to find its way.
But last week, the 54-year-old digital-media executive took on what could be his most difficult assignment yet: figuring out how to generate more revenue from the journalism produced by the 135-year-old Los Angeles Times while the news industry grapples with sweeping shifts in consumer behavior and a proliferation of online outlets.
“How do we bring that (journalism) to the world in a more aggressive and speedy manner?” Levinsohn said of his mission after he was named the Times’ publisher and chief executive last Monday. “That doesn’t happen by accident. You really have to roll up your sleeves and have a strategy and the right people.”
Education: American University, bachelor’s degree in communications
Experience: President of Fox Interactive Media and other positions, 2000-2006; Yahoo interim CEO and head of global media, 2010-2012; CEO of Guggenheim Digital Media, 2013-2014; Co-founder of Whisper Advisors media and tech consultants, 2016-2017
Boards: Tribune Co., Dex Media
The contours of that strategy, Levinsohn said, entail beefing up the news organization’s politics, entertainment, culture, sports and investigative reporting to capitalize on the Times’ talent pool and brand. His bosses at Chicago-based parent company Tronc have told him to make the Times more of a global player, particularly in Asia and Latin America.
He also promised to provide more resources to a newspaper that, like many of its peers, has sustained years of budget cuts.
Tronc executives say the L.A. Times is the jewel in the company’s crown and reviving it is of critical importance.
Analysts said that Levinsohn faces daunting challenges gripping the news industry. He’s also taking over the Times after management turmoil and more than a decade of ownership changes and a revolving door at the publisher’s office. Levinsohn is the 17th publisher of the Times, and the eighth since 2000.
He plunged into his new job Aug. 22, appearing on business network CNBC to make the case that the Times and Tronc have been undervalued by investors and advertisers. He had lunch with senior editors to meet his new team and learn more about current projects.
“Ross is a good guy. He’s smart and he’s been doing digital media for a long time,” said Larry Kramer, former publisher of Times rival USA Today. “The only hole in his résumé is that he doesn’t have newspaper experience — but the future of the organization is digital. It’s still the content that makes the L.A. Times the L.A. Times.”
After graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., Levinsohn worked at an advertising agency, a marketing firm and later HBO. By the mid-1990s he was working in digital media, eventually with search engine Alta Vista and the online site CBS Sportsline.
His big break came when he was at Fox, where he impressed media mogul Rupert Murdoch. After Murdoch spent $580 million to buy Myspace in 2005, he named Levinsohn to manage the young team that built the music and social-networking site.
But Facebook eclipsed Myspace, which Fox sold for $35 million in 2011. Two executives who worked with Levinsohn at Fox said Levinsohn does not deserve blame for MySpace’s collapse. Fox bought the site after its U.S. traffic had already peaked and then wasted millions of dollars trying to expand the service overseas.
“I learned a lot about what not to do,” Levinsohn said of his experiences at Myspace.
He also got a valuable education from his nearly two years at Yahoo. Levinsohn, who joined Yahoo in 2010, was interim CEO for about three months in 2012 after the previous CEO, Scott Thompson, was ousted over allegations of résumé padding. Levinsohn was a leading contender to become the permanent CEO, but lost the job to Marissa Mayer, whose hiring was considered a coup for Yahoo at that time.
More recently, Levinsohn co-founded a boutique advisory firm. He has served on several boards and invested in media, advertising and tech startups. Levinsohn is an investor in virtual-reality content producer Wevr and video-news producer Attn.
Though he has no experience working in newspapers, Levinsohn has expressed a deep reverence for the medium and the mission of journalists even as they struggle with digital disruption.
“In my adult lifetime, there has never been a more important time for journalism, for facts, for reporting,” he said. “It used to be the power of the pen, but now it is the power of the platform. I’m going to support you and get you more resources.”
His task won’t be easy. Newspaper advertising revenue peaked in 2006 with an estimated $49.3 billion spent in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Last year, the industry registered $18.3 billion in ad sales. Increasingly, consumers are reading the headlines and articles on their mobile phones. And while The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have made gains in converting online readers into paying subscribers, the L.A. Times has lagged.
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Online ad revenue hasn’t increased at Tronc since the second quarter of 2016. Online ad revenue in the second quarter fell to $47.5 million, down nearly 9 percent from the comparable quarter in 2016, according to Tronc earnings reports.
Online subscriptions across Tronc have grown, but not as much as at other companies. The number of online-only subscribers stood at 220,000 in the second quarter — about half of them from the Los Angeles Times — up nearly 90 percent from a year earlier.
The results prompted Tronc to shake up management, dismissing three corporate executives and the publisher-editor of the Los Angeles Times, Davan Maharaj, and three other top Times editors.
Tronc business executives acknowledge they have made missteps trying to balance the amount of advertising on the company’s online sites. Internet behemoth Google this summer warned the L.A. Times that it was violating the Better Ads Standards by having too much advertising clutter on its digital sites.
Levinsohn acknowledged the problem, saying, “We have to make our consumer experience much better.”