“SOMETIMES A CIGAR IS JUST A CIGAR,” Janet Clayton told her staffers in the metro newsroom of the Los Angeles Times. “Sometimes things really are what they seem.” This is how Clayton, who ran the California section as the Times’ assistant managing editor, announced her departure from the paper where she spent 30 years, her “entire adult life.”

She said she merely wanted to “try something new.”

What Clayton didn’t mention, however, were the rumors that she was leaving at least partly because the paper’s Tribune Co.–appointed management had asked her to become the newsroom’s ombudsman, a humiliating demotion several rungs down the Times ladder that Clayton spent her entire newspaper career climbing. The request reportedly reached her months ago, but sources said it played into her decision to look for a new gig.

“That says, ‘We don’t think you’re cut out for metro editor,’?” said an experienced staffer, who asked not to be named. “That’s getting you out of the news completely. That sent a strong message.”

But L.A. Times editor Jim O’Shea said in an e-mail that the position offered to Clayton would not have been a demotion, but the opposite: “We did discuss a new position with her, a masthead job that was senior to her current position and one which would have involved more interaction with the public,” he said. “But it was in addition to our current reader’s rep job held by Jamie Gold, who does excellent work.”

Still, said the staffer who contacted the L.A. Weekly, Clayton didn’t consider the job offer a promotion. The source called her departure another chink on the gilded legacy of editors John Carroll and Dean Baquet. The two were the first editing team brought in by Chicago-based Tribune Co. to head the L.A. Times before both left in heroic fashion after publicly defying editorial cutbacks. Carroll pushed Clayton to the newsroom from her post as editor of the editorial pages, where she had built a respected staff and garnered numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. As an L.A. native and an African-American woman in such a high position, Clayton was also a rare symbol for a paper often accused of being aloof and disconnected from the community.

But she apparently wasn’t good enough for Carroll and Baquet.

“History will show John Carroll and Dean Baquet were the worst things to happen to this paper. Let me explain why,” the source said. “[Carroll] decides that what you really need is a rock-star white man to run the [editorial] pages, who knows nothing about Los Angeles and doesn’t even live here.”

That rock-star white man was former Slate.com editor Michael Kinsley, who telecommuted between L.A. and his home in Seattle for about a year and a half before leaving his post after making some high-profile and ultimately clumsy innovations, like the “wikitorial.” Kinsley brought in Andres Martinez from The New York Times, who eventually replaced Kinsley. Earlier this year, Martinez himself left after revelations of an affair with a publicist tied to producer Brian Grazer, whom Martinez had asked to “guest edit” his Sunday opinion section. Now, the L.A. Times has Jim Newton running its editorial pages. He was brought in after running the metro section’s city-county bureau — under Janet Clayton.

And under her watch, what did Clayton achieve in the California section?

“Nothing,” the source said. “But in her defense, that was not a job she ever sought.”

So where is Clayton going, and who is replacing her? Neither point is clear. Clayton told the Weekly she is “staying in L.A., that’s certain.” O’Shea said he hopes to name a replacement soon.

“I’m just feeling deeply that it’s time for me to explore the world beyond the Los Angeles Times,” Clayton told her reporters and deputies. “What a great ride!”

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