The LA Times may emerge from turmoil as a model of digital success. It may not.

Illustration by Christie Chisholm

Davan Maharaj jokes that he’s a crazy driver. But he adds with a laugh, “I’m trying to behave since you’re in the car.” Maharaj’s home in Orange, California, is just 30 miles southeast of his office at the Los Angeles Times, though the metropolitan area’s clogged transportation arteries can turn the commute into a 90-minute rat race for the path of least resistance. The web of highways that carve up the expansive region provide ample opportunity for changes in course. Each of them also holds the potential for yet more soul-sucking backups.

Stop-and-go traffic is a fact of life in Los Angeles, and the last decade has seen the city’s flagship media institution likewise putter forward in fits and starts. When the Times’ parent company emerged from a long bankruptcy battle in late 2012, a year after Maharaj became editor in chief, it came with the expectation that an era of strategic paralysis would come to a close. But nothing has come to a close. The carousel of publishers keeps turning. New strategies come and go. The departure of top talent seems everlasting.

Maharaj is one of the few constants throughout this tumultuous era, thriving steadily while the others tremor. He makes a point of mentioning how he hasn’t applied for any of his promotions over the past decade. But he doesn’t shy away from framing his own role in the ongoing saga of a great American newspaper.

“I have to be the person to keep pushing us forward,” says Maharaj, who added the title of  publisher in March.

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When I ask him about the potential for yet more corporate upheaval—a day after newspaper giant Gannett made public its unwanted offer to buy Times owner Tribune Publishing—he replies, safely, “It’s above my pay grade.” Maharaj quickly changes the subject, pointing ahead to a highway interchange that looms above Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood. “At this point here I can take the 5,” he says, “or I can take the 101. But I have like 10 seconds to make that decision. It’s crazy.”

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Davan Maharaj (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)

The Times finds itself in a familiar pattern as it hurtles toward one strategic intersection after the next: Far-off investors debate a plan of action for Tribune’s disparate businesses; corporate suits hand out edicts for local satraps to execute; Times staffers wait on a knife-edge to learn what fate awaits the flagship property. It’s a bad dream that one of the country’s largest newsrooms cannot escape. 

Outside of national players in New York and Washington, the Times remains perhaps the most vaunted news organization in the United States. Its large market and still-deep talent pool give it ingredients as good as any regional newspaper’s for a digital rebirth. The great unknown remains whether it can find the elusive combination of vision from on high and daily execution in the trenches. 

“If we get this right,” Maharaj says, “we can be the model for news outlets in cities across the country. It’s on us.” 

While staffers await the vision from above, the first order of business in the Times’ newsroom will be to figure out which way is up. The paper is on its third publisher since September—one was abruptly fired; another was in town just long enough to oversee massive buyouts. Not long after Maharaj was installed in the dual position of editor and publisher, he found his organization sitting between two battling media titans, Gannett and Tribune, with each viewing the Times as a crowning asset. 

The newsroom has watched a crossfire of SEC filings and PR campaigns as the two flagging newspaper chains vie for what little oxygen is left in their industry. Tribune rejected two generous Gannett offers for its properties in May, announcing instead quixotic plans to become a global media empire and changing its storied brand name to a guttural, lower-cased acronym–tronc. But shareholders continue to disagree on whether to sell. And both Gannett and Tribune claimed symbolic victories after that internal division played out at the company board elections last week. It’s likely this public spat will continue dragging out. 

 

Barring an unprecedented period of corporate stability and savvy management, one of America’s proudest newspapers could be consigned to a purgatory of its own making.

 

In Los Angeles, Times staffers have once again found themselves in the unenviable position of trying to pinpoint the lesser of two evils: Tribune’s fanciful ambitions or Gannett’s cost-cutting reputation. Plans to carry out the former slowed when the latter emerged as a distinct possibility. 

Meanwhile, the Times is languishing. Just when one blueprint for the future is internalized by the newsroom, it’s replaced with a new plan. Barring an unprecedented period of corporate stability and savvy management, one of America’s proudest newspapers could be consigned to a purgatory of its own making.

Bad outcome after bad outcome has bastardized “change” into an inherently ugly notion. And large pockets of the newsroom doubt the Times has any overarching strategic goals, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and recently departed reporters, editors, and executives. “It feels like a ship just drifting in really complicated, changing waters,” says one reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job. “We feel leaderless in a lot of ways. There’s no continuity and no follow-through.” A current editor adds, “If there is a vision, [top managers] are not expressing it to their subordinates.” 

Many frontline staffers see simplistic measures like awards and Web traffic as the only discernable imperatives. “The uncertainty can be crippling if you let it,” says S. Mitra Kalita, managing editor for strategy, who announced her resignation four weeks after our interview. “That’s why it’s almost harder to talk about strategy than it is to talk about stories….That’s the thing in our control right now. And thank god for that. My hope is that, one story at a time, we are turning the boat.” Kalita was on the job just 14 months. 

Maharaj personifies the confusion: Over the course of his long commute downtown, he describes the Times first as “the great organization for the city and state,” then a Pacific Rim-oriented news outlet, and finally, echoing tronc’s strategy du jour, a global brand selling Los Angeles’ cultural sensibilities to the world. None of these ideas are necessarily incompatible. But Maharaj gives few compelling reasons to expect they will come together as a cohesive editorial and business strategy for an outlet whose staff has been repeatedly disappointed by the Next Big Thing.

The situation is partly out of his control. But colleagues argue that such amorphousness is a self-preservation mechanism amid a dysfunctional corporate culture. “Davan is a survivor,” one former superior says. 

That’s not an automatically bad trait in a fast-changing industry. But the larger question is whether it can be applied to an entire newsroom with already shaky confidence in its leadership. Maharaj is right: The Times, if ultimately successful, could generate hope in an industry long bereft of it. Then again, the flip side of that statement would prove a far more ominous sign.

 

Whatever happens to the Times newsroom will likely have its roots in Chicago, home of Tribune Publishing, or at least what was known as Tribune Publishing until last week. (We’re referring to the company as Tribune when the action took place in the past.) Amid continued sparring with Gannett, Tribune renamed itself “tronc,” short for Tribune online content. The name “captures the essence of the company’s mission” to leverage “artificial intelligence” and “machine vision” to distribute “premium, verified content” across its platforms, tronc said in a statement. Newspapers were not mentioned once in the press release. Journalism was brought up only by a Nasdaq executive welcoming the company to a new stock market listing. 

The Times newsroom erupted with laughter at the tronc news—and what else can staffers do? Bound to its dysfunctional owner, the news organization has been barraged with three separate strategies from three sets of leaders in the past nine months alone. 

In September, a publisher with a California-centric vision for the Times was abruptly fired after clashing with corporate leadership’s nationally focused plans. In February, that leadership was usurped by a new investor brought on for a cash infusion to the company. And that investor, top shareholder and board chairman Michael Ferro, is now running tronc. Each new announcement seems more dystopian than the next.

To be sure, what had been Tribune did need a shot in the arm. A double-digit decline in advertising income in the first quarter left it with a more than a 7-percent drop in total revenues against last year. Digital revenue, while on the rise, still makes up just 14 percent of the business. Though tronc doesn’t currently break out the performances of its individual businesses, people with knowledge of the Times’ finances say it is independently profitable, thanks to fees it receives from printing other newspapers.

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S. Mitra Kalita (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)

Tronc plans to anchor its entire business around this bright spot, new CEO Justin Dearborn said in a May earnings call. The goal is to turn the Times into a “global revenue generator.” “We believe we can monetize each unique visitor significantly more than we do today,” he said. The company will install new technology, which it cryptically refers to as “artificial intelligence,” to customize readers’ interaction with both Times content and advertisements. The hazily described idea is to bring the Times closer to potential transactions between its audience and businesses.

“If, of about 60 million readers, we have 50,000 who are interested in Salvador Dali pictures, [tronc] can find a way to link them to [vendors],” Maharaj says, referring to the Times’ internal traffic numbers for April. “It’s not looking for pennies and nickels on programmatic ads, but looking for a richer payday by selling specific segments of the audience.”

It’s all very vague, and it cuts against conventional wisdom within the industry. Not only has excess advertising inventory and poor user experiences led digital ad rates to crater, but news organizations now compete with personalization powerhouses like Facebook and Google in this arena. Perhaps Tribune’s “artificial intelligence” is the secret sauce—but it’s hard to say. A spokeswoman did not make executives available to better explain the technology or broader approach despite repeated interview requests.

Digital subscriptions comprise a small slice of this new gambit, which will require the Times to continue scaling its digital audience to compensate for the continued loss of print revenue. It sells about 325,000 newspapers each weekday and 700,000 on Sundays, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, down from 550,000 and 900,000 five years ago, respectively. Online, meanwhile, Times traffic grew from 25 million unique visitors in April 2015 to 36 million a year later, according to comScore. 

The New York Times and Washington Post’s digital audiences are typically double that, not including readers on third-party platforms. Some digital native outlets, unconstrained by print deadlines or geographic coverage areas, boast still more. 

Times editors have begun organizing workflows around digital publishing—a specific desk to handle the print product is in the works—emphasizing live blogs and iterative coverage. They’ll start a new website, LA.com, in the hope of attracting a more youthful global audience to the organization’s content, though there is no target date yet for its launch. To gain more non-English speakers, the outlet has also begun publishing content in Mandarin in a trial run with Chinese internet company Sohu. Senior staffers expect to explore similar partnerships with Spanish-language media or platforms.

Tronc, for its part, plans to invest in seven new Times foreign bureaus: Hong Kong, Seoul, Mexico City, Lagos, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, and Moscow. The bureaus will focus on entertainment and lifestyle coverage in the hope of creating a global community around Los Angeles’ cultural cachet. 

“Without a doubt,” Maharaj says, “Los Angeles is the creative capital of the world right now. Just Google it.” 

 

The business of the future is lots of little businesses that aggregate to the whole. Newspapers aren’t set up that way. They have one newsroom, one product, one emperor.”

 

It’s not immediately clear how these global objectives will mesh with the Times’ coverage of issues close to home. The paper has long occupied no-man’s land in this regard—more than a metro newspaper, but not quite a national or international giant. While the Times says it has hired 20 new journalists this year, the overall staff size has declined, thanks to veteran reporters and mid-level editors leaving. Still, Times brass say they can continue covering the world as it relates to California.

“I do think we’re a metropolitan newspaper, but we are a metropolitan newspaper in a very unusual metropolitan area, with a significant portion of immigrants, a significant attraction to people around the world, because of Hollywood or California in general,” says Megan Garvey, deputy managing editor for digital. “Even if you are focused on serving the readers here, I don’t think that means it’s only local news.”

Maharaj says state politics, for example, must be covered more intensely to attract junkies, a la Politico. “The LA Times would [previously] do a great job covering politics,” he says, “but now we’re realizing that that’s why people read the LA Times, to bring them that kind of coverage of what the lawmakers are doing.”

Better late than never. The Times’ move to make its political content more conversational, incremental, and shareable comes just as Politico has begun building its own team in Sacramento. The biggest stories in the state—Hollywood, tech, immigration, inequality, climate—are likewise increasingly competitive, particularly among niche digital media with laser-like focus on individual subject areas.

“For a long time regional papers like this one didn’t see LAist or The Eastsider blog as competition,” says Kalita, the outgoing managing editor for strategy. “Now, we see everything as competition.”

 

Ferro, the new fast-talking chairman at tronc who made his fortune as a technology entrepreneur, has laid out a short runway for the new business strategy. “We have about 18 months to make sure we’re hitting [our goals],” he told Bloomberg TV in May.

It’s an extremely tight window, particularly for a newsroom whose instincts are to oppose such plans. The parent company’s relationship with its flagship property has long been that of a flailing empire trying to quell a restive province. And it has hardened a culture of resistance in the Times newsroom that goes far beyond the managerial inertia typical at most newspapers.

“You have to get buy-in from the newsroom [for new ideas],” says Alice Walton, a reporter who writes the Times’ “Essential California” newsletter. “And this is a newsroom that has had layoffs and ownership changes and everything else, so I think that can be difficult.”

At first, Times brass openly resisted corporate decrees. Beloved editor John Carroll, who expanded national and international bureaus and led the Times to a trophy case of Pulitzers, resigned in 2005 after clashing with Tribune over staff reductions. His successor, now-New York Times Editor Dean Baquet, lasted just a year at the helm before being ousted for more vocal resistance to staff cuts. A replacement sent from Chicago, James O’Shea, soured on Tribune’s plans to shrink the newsroom in 2008. Three publishers likewise fell on their swords during this period.

“One day, I said I had to go along with it—if I didn’t do it, someone else would,” says O’Shea, a longtime Chicago Tribune journalist before coming to Los Angeles. “The other part of me was thinking, You’re an editor. You stand up for the reader. If you don’t fight for the reader, who the hell is? In the end I came down on that side of it.”

These were principled efforts, certainly, but they threw the Times into disarray just as it and other newspapers found themselves in crisis. More recent editors have acquiesced to Tribune’s budgetary demands, with Russ Stanton cutting the newsroom from about 920 in early 2008 to 550 in late 2011. Maharaj since whittled it down to roughly 450 through buyouts last year.

The Times’ online audience grew like that of its counterparts during this period. But the specter of constant cuts created greater internal competition for resources and a stronger aversion to bold ideas needed to create a digital business. “The learned behavior from overlords like Tribune is to say no, to resist,” one former Times executive says. “And that’s not going to work digitally.”

A prime example of this tension over new ideas came during the tenure of Austin Beutner, who was named publisher in 2014. Beutner oriented the paper more decisively into a California-focused outlet, honing in on important local issues, creating new revenue streams such as email newsletters, and experimenting with events on a larger scale. While Beutner’s political ties worried some in the newsroom, his broader philosophy of high-end, state-centric journalism appealed to many staffers

Still, senior editors say it was too much change at once. “Austin had 20 ideas a day,” one says. Top members of Beutner’s team, on the other hand, argue that newsroom leadership dragged its feet as a sort of self-defense measure. “The business of the future is lots of little businesses that aggregate to the whole,” a former executive says. “Newspapers aren’t set up that way. They have one newsroom, one product, one emperor.”

 

Changing that framework is an industry-wide quandary. But Beutner’s ambitious attempt was cut short when he was fired in September for overstepping Tribune’s bounds. It brought the newsroom back to reality, halting early signs of progress before they could be fully evaluated. It also spoke to broader issues throughout the industry: Change agents aren’t always welcome, and short-term survival often trumps long-term planning. 

“We all understand that digital is the future—even the most old-school print people realize that,” says Jim Brady, who launched the event-driven local news platform Billy Penn in Philadelphia and is prepping for an additional site in Pittsburgh. “But while you got this cute little garden on the side of the road here, I got to worry about this semi jackknifed in front of me. I thought it would be easier to create a culture than change one.”

 

That’s Maharaj’s ultimate task as editor and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and the organization continues to move forward despite the ongoing turbulence. Its journalism stands out amid a cluttered website and glitch-ridden app; more than half of all readers now visit from mobile devices. Its California coverage sets the state’s news agenda, while its political analysis and cultural criticism stand among the country’s best outside of the Northeast Corridor. Growing digital readership has corresponded with important accountability work. And the Times staff was rightly recognized with a Pulitzer for its swarming, digital-first coverage of the tragic terrorist attack in San Bernardino last year.

But peer into the newsroom in Los Angeles, and the signs of exhaustion are equally staggering. Perhaps nowhere is the strain felt more acutely than on the metro desk, with its dual mandate for both driving audiences and producing accountability reporting. The work ethic of Shelby Grad, assistant managing editor for California, has become legendary in the newsroom. He says he begins writing and editing local stories for the web as early as 5:30am, turns to print offerings around 8 am, and spends much of his afternoon re-editing stories, talking enterprise with reporters, tinkering with headlines, and “obsessively looking at traffic, which is a thing.”

“By around 5[pm], I’m usually incredibly tired,” he says. “But then, unfortunately I have to keep editing for print….A lot of times around 9 or 10[pm], I think, Oh my god, I haven’t looked at stories for tomorrow, I better look at them. I don’t usually do my best work then. But I at least know that I did something.” 

The Times relies on these individual efforts. But it would be unfair to expect the newsroom to last long under such weight. In a recent memo to his staff, Grad wrote that his team was having trouble filling the front page of the paper’s “California” section. The reasons given aren’t unique: Grad says it’s a focus on longer projects; a veteran reporter adds that it’s a push for live news coverage online. But the fact that the California section was launched less than two years ago is yet more evidence that the revolving door of leaders and visions has prevented the Times newsroom from settling on what it is—and what it is not.

 

But while you got this cute little garden on the side of the road here, I got to worry about this semi jackknifed in front of me. I thought it would be easier to create a culture than change one.”

 

Inspiring a staff as it careens from one strategic on-ramp to the next requires a special type of leader behind the wheel. And frontline staffers empathize with Maharaj’s need to respond as far-off shareholders transmit directions like a constantly recalculating GPS. But many also argue that the career Times man, who now occupies both titles atop the masthead, has accentuated some of these challenges.

Former executives say they respect Maharaj for consistently pushing back against Tribune’s edicts and pushing forward with new digital initiatives. But they also question his ability to delegate tasks, a crucial skill in managing a huge newsroom through strategic change. The vast majority of roughly 20 current and former Times journalists interviewed had more visceral criticisms, and several veterans add that they left or considered leaving due to what they see as ironfisted management. Of the few who gave Maharaj leeway based on the circumstances, one, a longtime reporter who departed last year, says simply: “He’s in over his head.”

It’s a thankless job, after all. Tribune named Maharaj publisher ostensibly to give Times journalists a seat at the financial table. But there’s still widespread confusion as to the corporate parent’s strategic vision. “I think it was a stroke of insight saying that LA is one of the cultural capitals of the world,” says one senior editor who speaks highly of Maharaj. “I don’t know if that means we need someone in Mumbai to [cover] that.” It’s hard to understand the logic of expanding abroad when staffers in Los Angeles are under duress.

Amid such bewilderment, Maharaj’s marching orders have been to continue pushing traffic to the Times’ website. In a late April memo to section editors, he urged them to change their workflows, including shifting reporters to digital duty and posting print stories online ahead of schedule, in the hope of reaching a new internal traffic benchmark by the end of the month. “We’ve had record-breaking traffic in recent months,” Maharaj tells CJR, “which shows that our strategy has been understood and embraced.”

Many veterans on staff argue that this more recent push for scale has driven newsroom discussion too far toward distribution and too far away from journalism. Similar to countless other newspaper journalists, some dislike many of the gimmicks that drive traffic online.

The much larger issue, however, is staffers’ widespread and justified doubt that there is any realistic plan to turn the exploding numbers into a sustainable business. Maharaj speaks about “packaging” and “monetizing” the Times’ large and growing audience, but there is little explanation of what these buzzwords mean in practice. The ideas he conveys for new revenue streams are largely holdovers from Beutner, whose tenure ended nine months ago. 

In many ways, Maharaj’s hands have been tied by the turmoil since then. Much of Beutner’s leadership team departed after his ouster. Efforts to launch LA.com, publish Times content as Facebook Instant Articles, and hire new staffers have also slowed during the recent ownership hubbub. “Has it been a distraction?” Maharaj says. “Yes.” And to be fair to him, he’s only been in the publisher’s job for a matter of months.

But there are other issues within his control. The Times throws few resources at Silicon Valley even though it’s perhaps the most far-reaching California story in a generation. “That space is very crowded,” Maharaj explains. Meanwhile, once the managing editor Kalita departs, 12 of the 13 remaining masthead editors will be white, despite the city’s and state’s majority-minority populations. Some of Maharaj’s recent hires have indeed been people of color, though the recent diversity gains trumpeted by Times brass were helped in large part by dozens of veteran white staffers taking last year’s buyout.

There is also widespread anxiety that enterprise and investigative work is stymied by an editing bottleneck atop the masthead, say numerous current and former staffers. Every news organization has difficulty publishing such work, of course, but these employees say Maharaj’s micromanagement, including line editing of individual pieces, can shelve information in the public interest for months at a time.

Times editors counter that these stories need to be bulletproof, and rightly so. “At the end of the day,” Maharaj says, “all that matters is whether the work is good, makes an impact, and stands up to scrutiny.” A bombshell OxyContin investigation in May checks all three boxes. Current and former staffers who saw the story at various stages believed it was ready to publish months ago. 

The Times has also been unable to retain top journalists with the expertise to produce such work. A projects editor left in late 2013, an enterprise editor brought on the next year lasted only nine months, and a current projects editor is on his way out. Two of three reporters on the OxyContin story had already departed as of last year. And there have been others. People change jobs for myriad reasons, but the trend line is disconcerting. 

Maharaj has begun a search to rebuild this team—he also wants to hire more digital natives to fill out the newsroom—and he points to accountability work as a pillar of his news organization’s civic mission and editorial brand. “Despite the criticism of our management, I do think that they value enterprise, accountability, and investigative reporting,” says one current editor who struck a conciliatory tone. “It’s the execution that’s been difficult. When you lose good people, it’s hard to do some of that work….We need to make people feel valued and that their work is valued.”

Of course, measuring the Times’ journalistic output compared to its capacity would require counting the dogs that don’t bark–an impossible task. But there have been signs that point to a cavalier attitude in this regard.

Maharaj shrugged off, for example, a nine-month lag period in replacing his full-time correspondent in Mexico City, perhaps the Times’ most important foreign bureau. “I don’t think we missed any stories,” he says. He did the same when pressed on why the Times’ tickets to the Oscars were initially allocated to company brass rather than reporters, compelling film team staffers to beg for access to an event in their own backyard. “In the end, it worked out,” says Maharaj, who was named publisher days after the incident. “That’s all I’ll say about it.” 

It seems a telling reaction, especially given that international and entertainment coverage are supposedly central to the new strategy. Which is to say: They are for now. The whims of Wall Street up the likelihood that the winds of change will continue blowing in Los Angeles—and that Maharaj, ever the survivor, will once again lean a different direction.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.