Shake-up on Spring Street leaves many shocked

Russ Stanton on his first day as editor of the Los Angeles Times in 2008.
Russ Stanton on his first day as editor of the Los Angeles Times in 2008.
Tony Pierce/KPCC

Was he pushed or did he jump? The Times brass is mum on the editor's impending exit.

Russ Stanton will step down as editor and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 23, and Managing Editor Davan Maharaj will assume the top newsroom job. No one has been named to fill the managing editor position, said The Times' spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan.

Many of the paper's reporters and top editors were blindsided by the announcement Tuesday and were left to speculate on what the decision meant and why it is happening now. Sullivan would not detail whether Stanton's departure was a resignation or a termination, but said it was "the passing of the baton."

In an email "farewell" to staff, Stanton said: "As this year comes to a close and we prepare for 2012, Kathy [Thomson, president and chief operating officer,] and I have agreed that now would be a good time for a fresh set of eyes to lead our newsroom."

Neither the paper's publisher and chief executive officer Eddy Hartenstein nor Thomson were available for comment, Sullivan said. She added that Stanton will not be giving any interviews. Maharaj was also unavailable for comment, Sullivan said. None of the individuals would respond to calls or emails.

Stanton told the paper's top editors that he will be stepping down at an 11 a.m. masthead meeting that lasted about 10 minutes. That meeting was followed by another in the newsroom for staff. Stanton and Maharaj spoke briefly to more than 100 reporters and editors. Stanton spoke without notes while Maharaj read prepared comments on a piece of paper that he held with a shaky hand, according to people in the newsroom.

"I had no idea it was coming," said Ashley Dunn, an assistant managing editor in charge of California news who was in the masthead meeting. "There was no indication — so they kept the secret well."

Dunn's comments were echoed by many in the newsroom Tuesday.

"Everybody came away wondering, OK, what's the real story?" said Times columnist Steve Lopez. "Here we are, a room full of reporters and editors, and we felt we just didn't get the story. But we knew we weren't going to get it by asking in that setting, 'OK, what's really going on.'"

The news also saddened many.

"Russ came after a string of editors who came and left very very quickly," Dunn said. "So when Russ came in, he became this solid foundation."

As editor, Stanton led The Times through a digital expansion that saw the paper reach more than 17 million readers online, according to his email to staff. During his tenure, the paper won three Pulitzer Prizes, including the Public Service Award for exposing corruption in the city of Bell.

Stanton also headed the news organization during a particularly difficult time in journalism when many newspapers have struggled with declining circulation and advertising revenue, which has forced them to drastically shrink their staffs. Over the last four years, the Times has cut its staff by nearly 40%, from more than 900 people to about 550, according to The Times' story.

Maharaj, 49, who has worked at the paper for 22 years, will become the paper's 15th editor. He has been managing editor since 2008 and also served as assistant foreign editor and Business editor. Maharaj has worked for The Times' Orange County bureau and also reported as its East Africa correspondent.

"I am humbled and honored to lead one of the most talented and resilient newsrooms in the nation," Maharaj said in the release.

Many people in the newsroom spoke highly of Maharaj, who is well-liked, and described as an enthusiastic newsman who loves discussing story ideas and projects.

"I'm very big on Davan," said John Arthur, a former veteran Times newspaperman who served as managing editor. Arthur is executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian. "He's smart and he's aggressive, and he's got tremendous news judgment."

The Times' parent company Tribune Co. is expected to come out of bankruptcy next year. Staffers are also bracing for another round of layoffs early in the new year, sources say.

"It's a big deal today, people naturally wonder what it means, why is he leaving, and I don't blame them," said one veteran newsman. "But the bottom line is, the much more important thing for the future of the paper is what the final outcome of the bankruptcy is, and do any of these people survive."

Tami Abdollah can be contacted by email and Twitter (@LATams).