What’s the Matter with the L.A. Times?

Something is amiss at the nation’s fifth-largest paper, and that’s a story unto itself

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Maharaj wasn’t happy with the OxyContin articles he received in 2014. He didn’t just tell Girion, Glover, and Lait about his displeasure—he let it be known around the office. His broadsides lacked specificity, and he declined to give the reporters detailed notes about areas of concern or suggestions for improvement. “Davan wanted to have an imprint on the story, to call it his,” said a source close to the journalists. “At the same time, he didn’t know how to give directions to people or what the fuck he should do to make it better. So he goes silent for weeks on end, sitting on explosive material.”

That summer Girion and Glover welcomed Harriet Ryan, a colleague with a gift for narrative storytelling, to the OxyContin project, and she began shaping the voluminous research into a more compelling read. By the end of the year a new draft of the series had been completed, but Maharaj remained dissatisfied. Though Lait had become as familiar with the investigation as the reporters themselves, and though the stories he turned in were by several accounts structurally and factually solid and tautly told, Maharaj took the OxyContin series away from him in early 2015 and handed it over to Drex Heikes, the Times’s projects and investigations editor.

When Heikes sat down with the OxyContin reporters, the changes he asked for were “mostly cosmetic,” said a knowledgeable source. As deputy managing editor of the Las Vegas Sun, Heikes had led an investigative team to a Pulitzer for public service; he was mindful of the need to vet every detail. He had no problems with the quality of the writing or the research on the story, sources said, because the underlying facts, as sensational as they were, had been so well documented by Glover, Girion, and Ryan.

The three-part series that Heikes delivered to Maharaj’s desk in March 2015 revealed unimaginable corporate complicity in a drug-dependency epidemic that had killed tens of thousands of Americans. Part I showed the extreme measures Purdue Pharma had taken to shore up OxyContin’s dubious claim of 12-hour pain relief, which was the product’s chief selling point. When doctors complained that regular-strength OxyContin was wearing off too quickly, Purdue urged them to prescribe stronger, more potentially addictive tablets and keep strictly to the 12-hour schedule. Part II demonstrated how Purdue had shielded an OxyContin drug ring from federal authorities and profited from its illicit sales, while Part III took a hard look at the company’s global OxyContin sales strategy and its possible impact on world health.

Weeks went by and the reporters heard nothing. Was Maharaj really struggling to grasp the material, as editors close to him had told them? The information in the articles was detailed but not highly technical. No one but Maharaj seemed to have a problem absorbing it. At one point Heikes admitted to the reporters that he couldn’t figure out what to do; he was powerless to advance the process. The following year he, too, would resign from the Times.

The OxyContin team tried appealing to a few of Maharaj’s top editors. This is a story with major implications for public health, the reporters told them. It just felt wrong to sit on it. The editors agreed. According to sources, they repeatedly approached Maharaj and encouraged him to speed up the process. Each time they’d return with the same dispiriting answer: Maharaj wouldn’t be rushed, and urging him to go faster was only making him dig in his heels.

Girion, Glover, and Ryan tried talking to Maharaj one on one. When each of them did so, the editor denigrated the two who weren’t there. The OxyContin reporters were a team. Why, they wondered, was he trying to divide them? Dumbfounded, they shared what they’d heard with one another and with colleagues.

During months of such treatment, the reporters continued keeping in touch with crucial sources and seeking out new ones. Still, a sense of desperation settled over the document-filled office where they worked. Out in the newsroom, everybody seemed to know about their ordeal, but no one could bring it to an end. As the series languished, Forbes published its 2015 list of the 400 richest Americans. Members of the Sackler family, which owns 100 percent of Purdue Pharma, were the wealthiest newcomers to the magazine’s roster, with a net worth of $14 billion.

OxyContin had certainly risen to the forefront of Washington’s agenda, if not Maharaj’s. In February 2015, President Obama requested more than $100 million in federal funding to combat prescription opioid abuse, and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced a package of legislation to ostensibly address the crisis. Passed by Congress and signed by Obama the following year, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act would actually curtail existing DEA restrictions on drug companies that fail to report evidence of criminal trafficking of their products, as Purdue had done—enabling the companies to churn out more as they went about mending their ways.

Not until July did Maharaj say he was ready to meet with the team. With Girion, Glover, Ryan, and Heikes gathered around the conference table in the editor’s third-floor office, he appeared at ease, even jovial, according to a source with knowledge of the session. He began by complimenting the reporters on a good job. Then he shared some general thoughts about the beginning of the third installment of the story. Ryan had her laptop open. She listened to Maharaj’s suggestions and attempted to turn them into prose, then read the new passage out loud. No, he said, not quite right. This kind of back-and-forth is not unusual, but its duration and its outcome were: Over the better part of two hours, Maharaj continued to express vague concerns about the same couple of paragraphs and to reject the team’s attempts to address them, and no resolution was found. There would be five more edit sessions. During those, Maharaj was almost always unfocused, checking texts, e-mails, and voicemails on his phone. Sometimes he would cut the meetings short.

The editor of a major newspaper has many responsibilities, and it’s easy to imagine that juggling them could require such multitasking. But Maharaj’s distractibility couldn’t be attributed to the heavy demands of his job alone. During one editing session, he asked the OxyContin team to take a few moments to admire the Ferragamo shoes he was wearing. He said he had found them while shopping with his old boss and current New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet when both were at an editors’ conference in Italy. (Baquet confirmed this shopping trip took place.) At a price of about $750, Maharaj said, the shoes had been a good deal.

During another meeting with the team, Maharaj spent more than half an hour on his phone, trying to redeem airline miles for a trip he was planning to take. While on hold, he directed the reporters to continue discussing their story. When the airline representative came onto the line, the editor-in-chief told everyone to shush.

The OxyContin series may be the most glaring example of Maharaj’s management style, but current and former staffers offered others that are pretty stark. There was the time Maharaj received an edited, multipart series about former cardinal Roger Mahony’s attempts to hide sexual abuse by priests and then disregarded the story for so many weeks that one of its authors recorded a spoken-word version to upload onto the editor’s phone so he might listen to it during his commute. (The reporting team received no indication that he did.)

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.” Others spoke of Maharaj’s paralyzing fear—evident from the moment he landed the top editor’s job—that he was in over his head.

Although Maharaj’s rehiring of food critic Jonathan Gold has been an unqualified success, some of his other marquee hires haven’t turned out to be the wisest use of the paper’s scarce resources. Music writer Sasha Frere-Jones, formerly of The New Yorker, lasted ten months, submitting infrequent articles that several sources described as incoherent. Frere-Jones’s editors at the Times caught him in an alleged ethical breach: He’d accepted, then rejected, a high-end trip (champagne included) from Dom Pérignon in conjunction with the kickoff of the Coachella music festival. They also discovered that $5,000 in expenses Frere-Jones claimed for an interview with a rapper had been incurred at a strip club. A representative for the rapper informed them that no interview had taken place. Frere-Jones was quietly let go. (Frere-Jones declined to comment for this article.)

Maharaj lured reporter Matthew Teague to the paper after reading one of his National Geographic stories at the dentist’s office. A short time later Teague was gone, too, after an article of his appeared in Esquire, violating the newspaper’s freelancing policy.

In the digital realm, the paper’s performance under Maharaj is unenviable. Hillary Manning, the Times’s communications director, cites internal research showing that latimes.com now reaches 50 million unique visitors monthly—a 60 percent increase over the previous year. But the site still doesn’t measure up to the competition: Last November Alexa Internet ranked nytimes.com the 21st most popular Web site in the United States in page views and daily average visitors; washingtonpost.com was 41st. Uneven and visually confusing, latimes.com took the 139th spot, 26 rungs below drudgereport.com.

When questioning Maharaj’s suitability to lead, several current and former Times staffers cited frequent, inappropriate remarks he made in the workplace. His propensity for such gaffes—which often involved his appraising the attractiveness of female staffers and other women—is spoken about openly in the newsroom. One source told me about a score sheet surreptitiously taped to the back of a door in an office where Maharaj held regular meetings. After the editor-in-chief had left the room, the other attendees would tally the number of indiscreet or even offensive remarks he’d made that day. 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. So when a colleague hears him assess Bo Derek, star of the 1979 romantic comedy 10, as “more like a six or a four,” which he did when the actress took the stage to present a prize at the 2013 International Women’s Media Foundation’s “Courage in Journalism” awards, as one source told me, it carries a different weight. 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.” By contrast Maharaj’s solicitousness for his Chicago bosses eroded the Times’s ability to report the 2016 Academy Awards. The paper received six tickets to the Oscars ceremony and the Governors Ball; in previous years these had been assigned to reporters covering the events. Last year the editors of the Times’s Calendar section found they would be receiving no tickets because all six had been promised to Michael Ferro, tronc CEO Justin Dearborn, then-publisher Tim Ryan, and their guests. When Maharaj was confronted, only two tickets were relinquished.

Though Manning turned down or ignored my many requests for an interview with Maharaj, she did eventually offer Duvoisin and managing editor Lawrence Ingrassia as surrogates. During our hour and a half in his office, Duvoisin didn’t enlighten me much about where Maharaj was taking the Times beyond some boilerplate about better online capabilities. For most of the interview he cupped his long fingers on the desk like a gambler hiding his cards, his gaunt face impassive. So circumspect were his answers that at times he seemed to be choosing every word with a pair of invisible tweezers.

Asked about the long gestation period of the OxyContin series, Duvoisin responded only in generalities, so I followed up later to ask for specifics. “Overall,” he told me, “the ultimate test of an investigative project is whether it says something important, has an impact, and stands up to scrutiny. By any standard that matters, the OxyContin series has been a success, and we’re proud of it and of the reporters who produced it. This was one of the most ambitious projects the paper has ever undertaken…. When you’re doing investigative journalism at that level, there is no margin for error. It has to be bulletproof. It takes time and resources, and we devoted both to this story.”

Duvoisin called Maharaj “one of the most talented journalists I’ve known…. The old line about newspapers afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted—he takes that literally, he believes that in his bones.”

While Duvoisin was polite, Ingrassia spent the better part of our breakfast meeting in attack mode, punctuating his statements with belligerent grins and victorious cackles. A few choice excerpts: “Ed, I think you’re wrong!” “You misunderstand totally the nature of internet advertising!” “Spoken like a freelance writer!” “I think you should do a little research before talking about that!” When I brought up the OxyContin story—the delays, the many months of frustration and the loss of the two reporters—Ingrassia, who joined the paper in early 2015, after the series was under way, seemed briefly at a loss for words. “I’d just kind of say that kind of stuff happens,” he said. “I don’t know all the details.” In any event, he didn’t see why it was so important to dwell on how the project had been handled. “Judge what’s in the paper instead of the making,” Ingrassia told me. “Who the fuck cares about the making of a sausage?”

During several months of research, I sought out staffers past and present who were fans of Maharaj’s leadership. Jimmy Orr, who was the Times’s managing editor for online news until he stepped down in 2015, had nothing but praise for his former boss. “You’re trying to serve subscribers and the people of Los Angeles,” Orr said. “Meanwhile you have the whims of Tribune management, which are changing all the time, and real-life revenue issues. So you need a strong badass editor who will stand up against the whims of Tribune, who will stand up and put quality journalism first.”

Orr did identify an area in which he found Maharaj lacking. “Here’s Davan’s fault,” he told me. “He’s too humble. What he does is prop up his reporters, editors, and all his journalists. What he doesn’t do is prop up himself. I lived it. I was with him.” Pressed for an example, however, Orr paused, and let out a sigh. “It’s been quite a while,” he said.

Tina Susman, who was the Times’s New York bureau chief and is now national editor for BuzzFeed News, told me that when her parents died within a short time of each other, Maharaj and Duvoisin could not have been more supportive. “Both of them made it clear to me, ‘Don’t worry about not getting back to work,’ ” she remembered. “They would call and check in on me during my time away.” She was less satisfied, though, with how haphazardly she was being bounced from one assignment to the next. “You had this constant feeling like you were being pulled ten different ways,” she said. “I couldn’t get traction on anything, and I couldn’t be proud of what I was producing.”

During my conversation with Ingrassia, I asked him to help me find staffers below the masthead who were enthusiastic about the paper’s direction under Maharaj. A few days later Manning, from the communications department, sent me the names and e-mail addresses of seven people to contact. Sports columnists Bill Plaschke and Sam Farmer told me they had no complaints but acknowledged they spend so much time filing stories from home and away games that they have scant familiarity with what might be going on in the newsroom. Christopher Goffard, largely working from Irvine, also didn’t have a close-up view of the daily give-and-take inside the Times headquarters, but I was eager to talk to him, because of all the reporters working under Maharaj, he seemed to be leading the most charmed existence. Last year the paper published a well-received series of his titled “Framed: A Mystery in Six Parts,” about the travails of an Orange County PTA mom after a cop found a bag of marijuana and 40 prescription pills in her car—planted there by vindictive parents at her daughter’s elementary school.

“My experience has been very positive,” Goffard told me. “Whatever the pressures Davan and Marc have had to deal with, their commitment to journalism remains very strong. Their mandate for me is to report the hell out of the story and file it at whatever length it needs to be.”

Another person on the list was Christina Bellantoni, assistant managing editor for politics, who had been hired away from the Capitol Hill journal Roll Call, in part because of her facility with digital integration. She noted Maharaj’s fondness for absorbing online content. “Davan is somebody who is addicted to his phone,” Bellantoni told me, “constantly looking at not just our traffic but at our stories. I would say he consumes 95 percent of what he consumes on mobile.”

Only three staffers on Manning’s referral list had spent more than 14 months in the newsroom: Shelby Grad, the indefatigable assistant managing editor for local and California coverage, columnist Steve Lopez, and Matt Lait. Although they had the blessing of the Times’s communications director, all three declined an interview.

For more than half a year Maharaj had been unavailable to talk. Hours before this article went to press, Manning sent this statement from him via e-mail: “We are in very challenging times in the newspaper business. My job is to make sure we produce quality journalism for our readers. Yes, that means I have to make difficult decisions. Running a newspaper isn’t a popularity contest. We and I should be judged by the quality of our work, and by that standard the Los Angeles Times has done very well in the past five years. Our journalism speaks for itself, and it speaks loudly.”

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