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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On September 4, 2015, Scott Glover tweeted: “Feeling incredibly grateful today for 18 amazing years at @latimes and for a new opportunity and very warm welcome at @CNN. Thanks to all.”

Glover’s decision to leave came as a surprise—even to Girion and Ryan. He told them and other colleagues that he had planned to stay at the Times until he retired, said one source, but that Maharaj’s mismanagement of the OxyContin series had proved too much (Glover was 49 at the time). When CNN made an attractive offer, he couldn’t turn it down. (Another source told me that though Glover’s experience with the OxyContin story played a major role in his decision to resign, he had other reasons as well.) The Times was losing one of its most acclaimed and experienced investigative reporters, but the paper’s editor-in-chief didn’t try to talk Glover out of leaving. Nor, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, did Maharaj call or e-mail to thank him for his service.

Now, with the OxyContin series stalled again, Marc Duvoisin announced to three separate editors that he was taking it over, said another source, having persuaded Maharaj that Glover’s resignation risked exposing the paper to embarrassment. (Duvoisin disputed this account, saying that while he did tell people he was editing the series, he “did not make a link to the second part of that proposition.”) However painstaking his methodology, Duvoisin was recognized as a capable long-form editor who could elevate prose and tackle structural challenges.

But the managing editor had an immediate distraction when he began his stewardship of the OxyContin series. Opening arguments for former sports columnist T.J. Simers’s age discrimination lawsuit against the Times were just a few weeks away. Originally Duvoisin and Maharaj were named as defendants; now they would appear only as witnesses—and as villains in the presentation of Simers’s case. Both would attend most of the two-month proceedings. Simers’s abrasive manner hadn’t endeared him to many of his colleagues, but after hearing Maharaj’s and Duvoisin’s testimony in addition to his own, the jury voted in the plaintiff’s favor to the tune of $2.1 million in actual damages and another $5 million for emotional distress. (The judge would later throw out the entire cash award, citing insufficient evidence.)

In early October Tribune Publishing—not yet rechristened “tronc”—announced its latest “Employee Voluntary Separation Program.” The Times figured to be hit hard by this next round of staff cuts, losing a minimum of 50 positions. In fact, 84 staffers headed for the exits. Some were top-level editors who had led entire departments. Tina Susman emptied her desk in New York, as did her fellow bureau chiefs in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and London. Columnist Sandy Banks, whose familiar yet always surprising voice had appeared in the paper for 19 years, also called it a day.

Just before Christmas 2015, a couple dozen staffers gathered near the water cooler with coconut cake and champagne to wish Banks a bittersweet farewell. Duvoisin came, but Maharaj was a no-show. Shelby Grad took up the toastmaster duties, lauding Banks for her terrific work, and concluded his tribute by pointing out that it was Sandy who had “discovered” a young Davan Maharaj in 1989 and recommended him as a Times summer intern. Banks took a step back and smiled, raising her hands in front of her face and waving them in a “don’t blame me” gesture. People began laughing but stopped when they remembered Duvoisin was present.

Among those lost in the buyout was Lisa Girion. She told colleagues that she had not planned to leave but she’d lost faith in the paper. She offered to stay on for a month to help finish the OxyContin series but was turned down.

Ryan chose to remain. She still believed in the series, and now she was the only member on the team left to see it through. Lait returned to the project to provide support and counsel as she did additional reporting that made the pieces even stronger.

To be sure, from the closing weeks of 2015 into the first months of 2016, the Times had other pressing issues to deal with besides the OxyContin series. The paper was reeling from the November buyouts, which amounted to arguably the single greatest loss of talent and experience in its history. Then, on December 2, a couple armed with assault rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition opened fire on a holiday party at a San Bernardino center for people with disabilities, killing 14. The massacre, which was praised by the Islamic State, required an all-hands-on-deck response from the newsroom staff, including Lait and Ryan. The Times’s coverage would win a Pulitzer.

In early 2016, Duvoisin underwent major surgery but continued to work on the OxyContin series from home. Sources confirmed that he did an effective job identifying vulnerabilities and suggesting solutions as well as shoring up the narrative stylistically. The story would have certainly benefited from that kind of constructive engagement during 2014 or all of 2015, sources said, but at least it had it now.

Part I of the series, on OxyContin’s “12-hour problem,” finally hit the front page of the Times in May 2016. By then, Duvoisin had suffered a relapse that landed him back in the hospital. Scott Kraft, another editor, supervised the second installment of the series, on Purdue Pharma’s efforts to suppress evidence of the OxyContin drug ring, which ran in mid-July. Sources said that Part III—about Purdue’s global ambitions—will appear sometime soon.

Though Girion and Glover had been gone from the Times for months when the first of the OxyContin articles ran, their bylines still appeared on the pieces they and Ryan had written together. In the paper’s promotion of the story, however, the two ex-employees were removed from the historical record as thoroughly as Old Bolsheviks were erased from official Soviet photos following Stalin’s purges. There wasn’t any mention of Girion or Glover, for example, in a Web-extra story on latimes.com that purported to be an inside look at how the paper got the scoop. Ryan, for her part, has continued to report ably on the prescription drug crisis and is currently readying the final chapter of the OxyContin series for publication.

As for the staffers who witnessed the toll the interminable, directionless, and sometimes hostile editing process had taken on the OxyContin team, more than a few raised an eyebrow as they absorbed the central question posed by that first headline: “You Want a Description of Hell?” Surely the survivors in the Los Angeles Times newsroom had a ready answer.

Editor’s Note: Both Marc Duvoisin and Larry Ingrassia responded to this story. Read their letters here, along with Ed Leibowitz’s reply

Read more information about how this story was put together here.

Ed Leibowitz is a contributing writer for Los AngelesHis last article for the magazine, a profile of a Latino Trump supporter, appeared in the October 2016 issue.