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April 29, 2017

Newsonomics: Mitra Kalita Leaves L.A. Times for CNN

The Los Angeles Times has just lost an important digital leader, as S. Mitra Kalita — just named as one of the ten most poachable players in media — leaves her job as managing editor for digital strategy of the paper to become vice president of digital programming at CNN, starting later this summer.

Kalita’s hiring at the Times one year ago won notice in the news industry. She had set a fast pace for newsroom innovation, early on at the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press, and then as executive editor-at-large and ideas editor at Quartz.

First published at Politico Media

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Quartz’s serial innovation was well enough noted that Kalita became widely sought. It was the change effort at the L.A. Times, then led by Publisher Austin Beutner, that led her to Los Angeles — and to the challenge of the digital reinvention of the metro news business.

Kalita won’t discuss her immediate reasons for leaving the Times and Tribune, but the recent tumult clearly played a role.

Just a few weeks ago, Tribune appointed a chief digital officer, Anne Vasquez. As I noted two weeks ago, the appointment of the then-(Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel managing editor, has caused consternation in several of the Tribune newsrooms. Although Tribune chairman Michael Ferro and CEO Justin Dearborn have noted her leading role in their Tronc “content monetization engine” strategy (“Tribune’s anti-Gannett strategy: Tronc, the Lagos Gambit and stalling”), Tribune’s newspaper leaders have wondered how much Vasquez will direct overall company digital business or product strategy. Further, they wonder how much sway local execs – on both the news and business sides of the house – will have.

The Tribune’s digital strategy, of course, was upended as Michael Ferro took control of Tribune in January, first letting go CEO Jack Griffin and then digital business head Denise Warren, whose hiring by Griffin had been the linchpin of Tribune Publishing’s first digital turnaround effort.

If Kalita’s talents and profile put her on the most-wanted lists at major news organizations, the chaos at the top of Tribune contributed to smoking her out of hiding. She trades a situation of uncertainty for the stability of a top digital news site, well situated within the more friendly confines of CNN and its parent Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting Group.

Kalita’s move comes two months after CNN announced a major shift from TV to digital, and an investment of $20 million, with which it plans to hire 200 additional staffers — even as it reduces its legacy (including desktop-oriented) side by 50.

Numerous observers confirm Kalita has moved the needle of needed digital change and thinking in her 14 months at the paper. The 39-year-old Kalita led multiple change efforts at the Times, efforts, of course, not universally well received by its veteran staff.

Davan Maharaj, the Times’ editor for the last five years, who added the publisher title to his job description in a move underwritten by Ferro, gives Kalita lots of credit for newsroom change efforts.

“The audience on latimes.com has nearly doubled in the last year– to nearly 60 million unique visitors a month. Our audience from social media has also grown; now more than half our readers find us on mobile. Our newsroom is now more diverse; more than a third are people of color, up significantly from a year ago — a statistic that puts us ahead of every large newsroom in the nation.”

Kalita added to the narrative, and language, of what’s important in the Times newsroom of more than 400. That meant building atop the journalism itself: “The success of our journalism said. “How adaptive are we to different devices and different platforms? How accessible, relatable, intimate, authoritative?

Based in New York City for CNN, she will oversee the homepage, alerts, projects and planning, mobile news and off-platform partnerships and initiatives for the company’s digital products.

Why move to CNN, after a career spent mainly on legacy print side of the business?

“This is a chance to innovate in an area that is pretty key to the future of storytelling. The vice president for programming is also the final decision-maker in what stories, headlines, visuals get pushed out on the site and across platforms. I’ve spent my career trying to make journalism more accessible, the foreclosure crisis in America to labor laws in India to homelessness in Los Angeles. This job represents incredible power to shape stories people already care about and bring new angles and awareness to those they don’t.”

At CNN, she hopes, “the pivot to ‘digital’ is a more natural one. I also have an eleven-year-old focus group at home who constantly tells me she hears about something on Instagram and then checks CNN to ‘see if it’s true.’ Indeed, when news happens, you turn to CNN. That is incredible reach but it also represents incredible opportunity for further engagement.”
Kalita’s move shows the further toll of business chaos on the local print-based news business. So many top digital change agents have left that local business, both given their frustrations at the pace of change and given the chance to deploy more resources elsewhere to build their ideas. In fact, Kalita, though young for her position, had been considered one heir apparent at the Times, as a possible successor to Maharaj. Now, as Michael Ferro fights off Gannett, and constructs his own digital strategy for struggling Tribune, he’ll do it with one top talent out the door.

I asked Kalita about leaving the local news arena and L.A.

“I’m rooting for it, and I’d still like to play some role in it. We need more innovation on the tech side to keep up, not just with competitors but the expectations of how readers want their news. What’s the best form for coverage of a city council meeting? Can we provide real-time updates on crime, real estate, other happenings by zip code? Also this is not just a young person’s game — expertise and authority are so valued online and helps us distinguish among brands and pretty necessary to hold account. To keep that going — and growing — takes major investment.”

And, on being a temporary Angeleno?

“The unexpected part of our year was falling in love with Los Angeles. We fell soon and hard. I don’t know where to begin. I’ll miss meals in the San Gabriel Valley and Thai Town in Hollywood, hikes in Griffith Park and the seals in San Simeon, those delightful pink boxes filled with such amazing donuts (buttermilk is my favorite), when you look up from a traffic light or a mini-mall and the vistas just leave you speechless, my backyard where chili peppers from Assam (the seeds a gift from Davan) grow alongside eggplant and tomatoes, edgy artists and their work, concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, Gustavo Dudamel, the run-ins with stars and the more frequent encounters with the writers and directors who made them so.

“I often opened up my talks with community members by saying this Brooklyn-born, Puerto Rico-raised daughter of Indian immigrants was made to live in Los Angeles. It’s not just a line. I felt at home here.”
In her parting note to staff, Kalita offered a thinly veiled rebuke to the swirl of ownership change that has so far further disrupted digital innovation.

“To the people who care deeply about this sprawling metropolis, continue to take heart in the fact that The Times remains the glue that binds, informs, entertains and connects. Nobody can take that away; nobody can buy that.”

 

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