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L.A. Times Masthead Massacre Capped a Month of Newsroom Turmoil

The ouster of four top editors at the L.A. Times on Monday was the result of a month of newsroom turmoil following the publication of an investigation into the former dean of the USC medical school.

Sources familiar with the situation tell Variety that the paper’s top investigative reporter, Paul Pringle, filed complaints with the human resources department about top editors, alleging that the story was being delayed due to cozy relations between the editors and USC officials. Tronc, the paper’s parent company, responded with an internal investigation. The probe did not find any substantiation for the complaint, but did open the floodgates to additional newsroom grievances against the paper’s leadership, culminating with the dismissal of Davan Maharaj, the editor and publisher, managing editor Marc Duvoisin, and two other top lieutenants.

The Times published its blockbuster report on Dr. Carmen Puliafito on July 17, finding that the dean was a methamphetamine user who partied with drug dealers and was present when a 21-year-old escort overdosed in a hotel room. The report was a major coup for the Times, and knocked USC officials back on their heels. But it also kicked up underlying resentment and bitterness within the paper, according to several newsroom sources who spoke to Variety on the condition of anonymity.

The Times was first tipped off to the Puliafito story more than a year ago. Initial drafts were not deemed fit for publication, according to several newsroom sources. As reporting went on over the course of several months, Pringle began to complain that Maharaj and Duvoisin were dragging their feet and trying to quash the story, say these sources.

Pringle, who declined to comment for this story, had filed his complaint earlier this year alleging that Maharaj and Duvoisin were going easy on the university due to the paper’s partnership with USC to put on the Festival of Books. Tronc began to investigate those claims.

The story was published, and widely hailed. USC was forced to launch its own inquiry, and acknowledged that the situation was poorly handled. But the success of the story did not end the hard feelings within the paper. Pringle filed a new complaint with HR alleging that Maharaj and Duvoisin caused an improper delay in publication.

A couple of weeks later, reporters got wind that California editor Shelby Grad was about to be transferred to a new assignment. Pringle and his supporters on the Metro staff interpreted the move as retaliation for Grad’s staunch support for the USC story. Several newsroom sources said that Grad had encouraged the reporters to pursue the story in the face of skepticism from Maharaj and Duvoisin. Grad and Maharaj declined to comment for this story.

In an email to Tim Ryan, the president of publishing at Tronc, a group of 15 reporters expressed concern that Grad’s transfer “shortly after fighting for publication of the USC story” raised concerns about potential “conflicts,” and “possible ethical lapses that could damage the reputation of the Los Angeles Times.” Pringle was not among the 15 who signed the letter.

The email, obtained by Variety, touched off another HR investigation at Tronc. Newsroom sources say that many people have been interviewed in recent weeks. The investigators began to hear many other complaints against Maharaj and his team. For some time, several Metro staffers have grumbled about low pay and the lack of raises in recent years, and talked about organizing a union.

By last Friday, it became clear that the HR investigation posed a serious threat to the top editors. That morning, several editors wrote to Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn and chairman Michael Ferro, requesting an immediate meeting.

“We ask you to meet with us today, as a group, to discuss a Human Resources investigation that has disrupted our workplace for more than a month,” the editors wrote. “We are concerned about the repercussions for the news organization.”

On Monday, those repercussions became clear. Maharaj and Duvoisin were out, along with investigations editor Matt Doig, and digital editor Megan Garvey. Jill Leovy, the founder of “The Homicide Report” blog and author of “Ghettoside,” was also fired. She is Duvoisin’s wife. Ana Mata, Maharaj’s administrative assistant, was also let go.

Tronc concluded there were no improprieties in the handling of the USC story, according to a published report by the Los Angeles Times. The four were not let go for cause, and Tronc referred to the personnel moves as a “restructuring.”

While the newsroom rebellion may have been the catalyst that undid Maharaj and his team, it appears that Tronc’s leadership was already contemplating a change at the top.

Veteran media executive Ross Levinsohn was appointed the new publisher, and Jim Kirk, former editor and publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, was named interim editor.

In an interview with the Times, Dearborn praised Levinsohn as an “avid reader” and someone who is “passionate about journalism.”

“What we need right now is someone who has broader global vision and someone who can execute on that,” Dearborn told the paper.

At an all-hands meeting at 3 p.m. on Monday at the Times’ community room, Levinsohn and Kirk declined to discuss the firings. Instead, they vowed to “invest in the brand.”

Staffing cuts are a perennial source of anxiety at a newsroom that has seen wave after wave of buyouts. According to sources in the meeting, Levinsohn and Kirk offered assurances that they did not come to the paper to make further cutbacks. However, Times staffers have heard such promises before from new leadership.

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