LA Observed photo of the Los Angeles Times home offices downtown.
When my colleague at LA Observed Mark Lacter died suddenly in November 2013, he was at work on a much-needed update for Los Angeles Magazine on the state of the Los Angeles Times. The magazine has now gotten around to going deep on the subject of the Times, and that piece, posted Wednesday, describes a newsroom with some serious internal issues beyond those market forces that are slamming all newspapers. What’s the Matter with the L.A. Times?, by the magazine's Ed Leibowitz, lays the troubles at the feet of editor/publisher Davan Maharaj and his chosen top aides. While Maharaj's talents as a newsroom leader have been questioned publicly before, this is the first in-depth look that makes him the villain of the story.
The narrative spine of the magazine story is the problems that reporters Scott Glover and Lisa Girion and projects editor Drex Heikes encountered in getting a multi-part investigation into Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, into the paper. "A cycle of pointless delays" over 15 months swirled at Maharaj's desk, and Leibowitz describes an editor-in-chief both distracted and disrespectful in his treatment of the writers and many others on his staff. While the Purdue Pharma package did finally run, Glover, Girion and Heikes have all left the paper.
Leibowitz worked on the piece for eight months and talked to more than 40 present and past newsroom staffers. His own main editor on the piece, Amy Wallace, is a former Times staffer with many current ties to the paper. The editor in chief of Los Angeles Magazine, Mary Melton, is herself an LAT alumnus (and married to Leibowitz), and the LA Mag-LAT connection extends to the magazine's copy editing staff. Leibowitz even disclaims in the piece that he wrote regularly for the LA Times Sunday magazine when it existed, applied for a job there, and wants the paper to succeed: "I believe fiercely in the Times’s importance to the civic life of the city, the state, and the nation." This was a story he has long wanted to write, Leibowitz says, and it looks as if he had more than ample access to Times insiders, even though none would go on the record with their issues about Maharaj.
Leibowitz portrays Maharaj (right) as insecure about being over his head as editor (and recently he became publisher too, with no business experience), autocratic and insulting toward colleagues, and offensive in his treatment of women. These are all, by the way, charges that I have heard often during Maharaj's tenure, from staffers of all ages and in many parts of the newsroom. He also has his supporters across the newsroom. Leibowitz tried repeatedly to interview Maharaj for the story but says he was rejected each time.
A sample of the story:
If you could choose just one story to illustrate both the great potential and the enormous problems of today’s Los Angeles Times, you couldn’t do better than the paper’s mishandling of the OxyContin series. Yes, the Times is struggling with the same challenges that face all large dailies: dwindling advertising, plummeting circulation, encroachments from digital news entities, a shrinking staff. But those well-publicized woes have provided a kind of cover for a feckless and sometimes mean-spirited editorial leadership. In the past five years the paper has published works of journalism as hard-hitting as any out there. But something is amiss inside the historic Los Angeles Times building at 1st and Spring streets. And that something has as much to do with ego, insecurity, and warped priorities as it does with market forces and the changing media-consumption habits of Angelenos.
For decades the Times had been a supportive place to work, competitive but friendly. After five years of Maharaj at the helm, the newsroom has been overtaken by fear, and more editorial staffers have departed than Tribune’s executives have mandated. Describing the harsh treatment that had led several colleagues to exit the paper, one former employee said, “Davan would talk down to them. He would isolate them and bad-mouth them in public. And then once they left, he would tell people how useless they had been.”
Many of the reporters and editors who’ve left are in their thirties and forties, in the prime of their careers. Some of the paper’s most accomplished journalists have opted to take jobs at wire services, newsletters, and fledgling Web sites—the kinds of outlets that the paper used to recruit journalists from, not lose journalists to. “You don’t quit the Los Angeles Times to go to Kaiser Health News or Reuters,” observed a staffer still at the paper. “These people are not quitting the Times. They’re quitting to leave their bosses.”
Strong stuff. As readers of LA Observed know, the voluntary buyout and retirement wave in late 2015 was among the largest mass departures the Times newsroom had ever felt. Maharaj was the reason that some, privately, cited for leaving, along with the growing sense of unease about the paper's financial future. Since then, Maharaj has pushed to hire dozens of new reporters and editors, using the opportunity to bring in a new wave of journalists he sees as a better fit with the digital-first newspaper that Maharaj wants to create. The Times PR department gave Leibowitz the names of several newsroom figures who would say supportive things about Maharaj, and several did. Others who the flacks put forth, including columnist Steve Lopez and Assistant Managing Editor Shelby Grad, declined to be interviewed.
Leibowitz revisits some of the positives of the Maharaj years, such as the Pulitzer Prizes and bigger investigations, as well as some of the gaffes and embarrassments. (You could catch up on a lot of both in our LA Times archive at LA Observed.) Passages like this are what could raise questions about Maharaj's future — is he really the right leader to guide a paper where, to look at the print editions this week, the display advertising that pays the bills is clearly drying up?
Several sources attributed Maharaj’s inaction to a chronically short attention span and a preoccupation with trivialities. (One person told me he’s prone to watching cricket games on his phone during meetings.) Some pointed to a disdain bordering on contempt for the abilities of those who work beneath him. “Davan always returns to this theme,” said a former staffer. “That people on the staff are idiots.”
In the course of my reporting, I didn’t hear just one detailed account of Maharaj rating women’s looks aloud to his subordinates, I heard several. Some might chalk up such comments to salty newsroom culture (journalists on deadline aren’t known for their decorum). But Maharaj occupies the highest position at the paper.... It’s not that Maharaj hasn’t promoted or championed women colleagues. He has. But 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.”
Accompanying the Leibowitz piece is an editor's note from Melton, who says the situation at the Times is "worse than need be, even given the decline of dailies everywhere. That’s especially troubling at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, when the paper’s ability to publish news without compromise or constraint is more crucial than ever. The L.A. Times needs support at the top to fulfill that duty—and subscription orders from readers, too."
CNN Money media writer Dylan Byers took note of the focus on Maharaj in a piece today. Sample:
CNNMoney spoke to several current and former Los Angeles Times sources at various levels of the organization, and all of them said that the broad thrust of Leibowitz's article was accurate.
The Los Angeles Times has been beset by a litany of challenges in recent decades that go beyond the struggles facing the newspaper industry generally. Among them: Owner Sam Zell, who famously drove the paper and its parent company into bankruptcy; the subsequent years of buyouts and layoffs; and finally the new ownership, which has pledged to revitalize the Times into a "global entertainment brand" but has done little to follow through.
The L.A. Times has also failed to gain prominence in the digital space. While the paper is the fifth largest-staffed paper in the country, it commands a fraction of the online audience that its competitors do. Leibowitz cites Alexa Internet statistics ranking The New York Times and Washington Post websites as the 21st and 41st most popular web sites in the country, while latimes.com is in the 139th spot, "26 rungs below drudgereport.com."
But the assertion that the Times' own editor-in-chief is part of the problem is a new revelation, at least to the public, and one that has potential to radically alter Maharaj's legacy at the paper's helm.
* Added: Wallace also posted a note talking about her linkages to the Times newsroom and the process of editing the story. Her post:
I’m a writer and editor at Los Angeles magazine. I used to be a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times. Over the past eight months I’ve worked with a writer, Ed Leibowitz, on a story for this magazine about the Los Angeles Times. Complicated? Emotionally, yes.
I love the Times. I spent 11 years there as a reporter (covering everything from higher education to Hollywood) and two more as an editor. I am grateful for the opportunities the paper gave me, and I still know people there, including Davan Maharaj, the editor-in-chief. We served as deputy business editors together in 2006. In the decade since I left the paper (by choice, without a buyout, to work full-time for magazines), Davan and I have had dinner and talked on the phone a couple of times. We’ve always been on friendly terms—in fact, he and his lieutenants have approached me more than once about returning to the paper—so I was saddened when I heard from Ed how angry and fearful so many Times staffers feel working under Davan.
Ed set out to write a straightforward piece about the Times’s future. Instead the article became an examination of how poor leadership has led to the further erosion of a paper already burdened by innumerable challenges. Once we saw that through-line, editing this story was not complicated. At its best, the Times makes L.A. better by holding our leaders accountable. We hope that this piece may do the same for the Times.