The Los Angeles Times' downtown headquarters
The Los Angeles Times' downtown headquarters
Photo by Ted Soqui

It's a Total Eclipse of the L.A. Times Masthead as Tronc Cleans House

Davan Maharaj had held on for so long it almost felt like he would be at the Los Angeles Times forever. The 28-year veteran of the publication had occupied the editor-in-chief job since 2011, through a bevy of owners and publishers, through bankruptcy, through lawsuits and takeovers and all kinds of boardroom intrigue.

"Davan is a remarkable survivor, having survived Sam Zell, Austin Beutner, Jack Warner and one year of Michael Ferro," newspaper analyst Ken Doctor says of past and current L.A. Times ownership and leadership. "It was a remarkable run."

And just like that, he's gone.

Yesterday, the Times' parent company, tronc, let go of Maharaj and three of his top deputies: managing editor Marc Duvoisin, deputy managing editor Megan Garvey and assistant managing editor of investigations Matt Doig. Another managing editor, Larry Ingrassia, had previously announced his retirement. For those keeping score at home, that leaves zero managing editors and two assistant managing editors still at the paper. The Times' corporate overlords clearly don't want to just tweak things. They want to wipe the slate clean and start over.

“We just felt that we weren’t going in the direction that we needed to be going,” tronc CEO Justin Dearborn told the Times . “The L.A. Times brand is our brand that has a global reach and we just weren’t getting there fast enough.”

The surprising thing, to some former Times staffers and insiders, isn't that Maharaj is gone. It's the timing.

"I can honestly say that I have never encountered an editor that was disliked as much by the rank and file as Davan was," says former Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work uncovering the city of Bell corruption scandal. After taking a buyout, Gottlieb sued the Times last year for age discrimination, but the suit was dismissed two months ago.

The case against Maharaj was put together thoroughly in a lengthy Los Angeles Magazine piece late last year. On top of having a personal style that many found abrasive, Maharaj was accused in the story of making "inappropriate remarks" toward women, at times "appraising the attractiveness of female staffers." According to the L.A. Mag article:

Concerns about a hostile work environment for women at the Times have reached such a level, according to knowledgeable sources, that two female editors filed formal complaints with the human resources department.

“Davan’s lack of respect for women is part of a larger issue,” said a former staffer. “It’s the fundamental lack of respect for people working their asses off to make the paper great.”

The editor also was accused of holding onto stories and delaying their publication for months, even years, driving away top talent including Gottlieb and investigative reporter Scott Glover. According to L.A. Observed's Kevin Roderick, Maharaj delayed the paper's recent story on USC medical school dean Dr. Carmen Puliafito's years of alleged drinking and drug use. Yesterday, Roderick wrote, "Some staffers had sent a letter to tronc headquarters complaining about Maharaj's leadership."

In addition to the complaints about Maharaj, the bigger issue may be that as a news group, tronc's online traffic and its digital ad revenue during the second quarter of this year were down 9 percent compared with last year.

Those numbers aren't necessarily all the L.A. Times' fault. But the Times isn't exactly helping. At a time when The New York Times and the Washington Post are battling it out every day for Donald Trump scoops, the L.A. Times is barely on the map in terms of national news coverage, even though its local coverage is often quite good.

"In general, it has performed a little better than the rest of the company," Doctor says. "This is an overall strategic problem. What is its transformation strategy? If you’re gonna get it right, the best place to start is with your flagship property."

Maharaj had been serving in the unusual dual capacity of editor-in-chief and publisher, the latter title given to him by the Chicago bosses last year. For now, he's being replaced by two people. Succeeding him as publisher will be Ross Levinsohn, a media executive who served as interim CEO of Yahoo! and ran Fox Interactive, where he oversaw properties such as MySpace and Rotten Tomatoes.

Jim Kirk, a longtime Chicago newsman, has been named interim executive editor. Kirk has worked with current tronc chairman Ferro before; he was hired by Ferro in 2012 as editor-in-chief (and, later, named publisher as well) of the Chicago Sun-Times. Ferro gave up ownership of the Sun-Times last year to take over Tribune Publishing, which he renamed tronc. Kirk had remained at the Sun-Times until last week.

According to a letter from Dearborn to tronc staff, Kirk and Levinsohn will lead the search for a new editor-in-chief. Kirk did not respond to a request for comment.

"The Los Angeles Times is a beacon of journalism and one of the most important voices in media, and I am honored and humbled to lead this world-class media enterprise," Levinsohn said in a press release. "We have global ambitions for this brand, and I believe the Los Angeles Times has the potential to further expand and deepen its societal and cultural impact regionally, nationally and around the world.”

Judging from these comments, it appears that tronc wants to deepen the paper's national and international coverage and boost its national prestige. Its choice of a new, permanent editor-in-chief likely will be seen as a barometer of how seriously tronc will compete with its East Coast rivals, according to Doctor.

"If they want to be on par with the Post and The [New York] Times, I think they'll look to see if they can hire someone from the Times or the Post, or someone with national credibility and digital success," Doctor says. "That will be interesting — both who they offer that job to and who ends up taking it."

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