In a dramatic shake-up at the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago-based parent company has installed new leadership and plans to invest more resources in the news organization to move it more quickly into the digital age.
Ross Levinsohn, 54, a veteran media executive who worked at Fox and served as interim chief of Yahoo, was named publisher and chief executive of the 135-year-old news organization. The move was announced Monday by Justin C. Dearborn, chief executive of Tronc, the parent company of The Times and eight other daily newspapers.
Jim Kirk, 52, a veteran Chicago news executive, who was publisher and editor of the Chicago Sun-Times until last week, was named interim executive editor of The Times.
The two men replace Davan Maharaj, who served as both editor and publisher since March 2016. Maharaj was terminated Monday morning, along with three senior editors: Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin, Deputy Managing Editor for Digital Megan Garvey and Assistant Managing Editor of Investigations Matt Doig.
Levinsohn becomes The Times' 17th publisher and the fifth in the last decade. He has spent more than 20 years in media — though never in newspapers. He said he's excited to take on such an important assignment.
"This is an amazing opportunity," Levinsohn said in an interview. "The L.A. Times is a bastion of great journalism. My aspiration is to draw upon the incredible amount of work that has been done here and broaden it."
Levinsohn headed digital operations for Rupert Murdoch at Fox, formerly known as News Corp., as president of Fox Interactive Media, where he oversaw a diverse group of digital properties, including MySpace, Fox Sports and Rotten Tomatoes. He played an integral role in creating the online video streaming site Hulu.
He spent a little less than two years at Yahoo, including serving as interim CEO. He also served as chief executive of Guggenheim Digital Media, where he managed such assets as the Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and Adweek, before a change in direction there.
Most recently, he has been co-founder and a partner at Whisper Advisors, a consulting firm. Dearborn said Levinsohn, who also served on the board of television station owner Tribune Media, has been consulting with Tronc for about a year. When it became clear that Tronc leaders wanted to make a switch, Levinsohn told them he was interested in the job.
In an email to the staff, Levinsohn, a New York native who has lived in L.A. for nearly two decades, said: "I have long admired what the Los Angeles Times stood for — its voice and impact, the world-class journalism that is produced day in and day out, the challenges you tackle and the importance of what you do."
Kirk, an Illinois native, joined Tronc just six days ago as senior vice president of strategic initiatives. He arrived in Los Angeles over the weekend and said he is planning to work with Levinsohn to identify candidates for the top editing position. "The goal here is to execute on Ross' strategy and find the right person for that," Kirk said.
Part of the rationale for the overhaul, Dearborn said, is that Tronc executives were concerned that The Times wasn't reaching its full potential.
"We still obviously need to do a great job in California," Dearborn said. "There are certain areas that we are going to double-down on. Ross isn't coming in to oversee further downsizing. We all have to work within budgets, we are a public company … but nobody came here to manage this business downward."
The new leaders take over a news organization with flagging morale after years of management changes on top of huge shifts in consumer behavior that have roiled the entire newspaper industry. While still producing award-winning journalism, the paper hasn't been able to keep pace with better resourced rivals on the East Coast, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Tronc this month reported second-quarter results that showed revenue continuing to decline. It was the fifth consecutive quarter in which revenue had fallen compared with the same period a year earlier — and the fourth consecutive quarter of ever-faster declining digital advertising revenue, according to company earnings releases.
By comparison, other newspaper companies — including the New York Times and USA Today publisher and onetime Tronc suitor Gannett Co. — have seen online ad revenue increase.
Online subscriptions across Tronc have grown, but not as much as at other companies. The number of online-only subscribers stood at 220,000 in the second quarter. That was up about 6% from the previous quarter, but was less than one-tenth of the tally at the New York Times.
Gabe Kahn, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said Tronc has failed to attract paying online readers or advertisers at the same rate as other publishers.
"It seems like Tronc's strategy toward boosting digital ad revenue was simply to load up the page with more ad inventory, which makes reading the paper online like peeling back the layers of an onion," said Kahn, who is a Times subscriber.
He also said Tronc has not found ways to encourage current subscribers to sign up for premium content — as have publishers such as the Wall Street Journal and Politico.
"It's still pretty much a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach," he said. "Going forward, the upside is there's still plenty of opportunity because they haven't done anything."
Tronc plans to invest more resources into the Los Angeles organization, particularly in the reporting of news in Washington as well as its culture and sports coverage, Dearborn said. He said he would also like The Times to be a more authoritative voice reaching Asia and South America.
The shake-up came just one month after the publication of a lauded investigative report in The Times, which revealed that the former dean of the USC Keck School of Medicine had partied with a prostitute and drug dealers, including on campus.
Reporters who worked on the project approached senior corporate management to express concern about how Maharaj and Duvoisin handled the story. The reporters said they feared a possible conflict of interest with USC, which hosts the newspaper's annual Festival of Books. Tronc then began reviewing the matter.
Maharaj and Duvoisin defended the editing of the story to colleagues, noting that sensitive and complicated articles typically take months to report, edit and legally review. And they pointed out that after the story was published, the paper continued to run developments on the front page.
The full findings of the review were not disclosed. But the company concluded there was no conflict of interest, Cindy Ballard, Tronc's head of human resources, told top editors Monday.
The company did determine that the dual publisher and editor role — which was part of a sweeping, companywide reorganization in 2016 — was problematic in a market the size of Los Angeles. The publisher traditionally serves as head of business operations, overseeing revenue generation; whereas the editor is responsible for the newsroom, newsgathering and the editorial direction of the publication. Traditionally, those roles are kept separate to avoid conflicts of interest.
Maharaj, who became editor in late 2011, oversaw a period in which digital subscriptions and readership increased — but not as quickly as at larger, national papers.
A native of Trinidad, Maharaj started at the paper as a summer intern in 1989 and worked as a reporter in Orange County, Los Angeles and east Africa. His six-part series "Living on Pennies," in collaboration with photographer Francine Orr, won the 2005 Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing and prompted readers to donate tens of thousands of dollars to support aid agencies in Africa. He later served as assistant foreign editor, as business editor and as managing editor.
While he was editor, The Times won three Pulitzer Prizes, including for breaking news reporting of the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
"During the last 28 years, it has been an honor working with the best journalists in a great American newsroom," Maharaj said in an email. "They are indomitable, and I wish them well in their continued fight to serve our community. I'm proud of the work we've done."
Three top executives left Tronc on Monday, including Tim Ryan, who served as the L.A. Times publisher from 2015 to 2016. Advertising executive Ken DePaola and marketing executive Joseph Schiltz also departed, the company said.
Two other people at the Times were fired Monday in addition to the top editors: Ana Mata, an executive assistant to Maharaj, and reporter Jill Leovy, the bestselling author of "Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America" and the wife of Duvoisin, the former managing editor.
Garvey, who was instrumental in reshaping coverage and pushing for better digital tools for the newsroom, said in an email: "What a thrill to spend nearly two decades surrounded by world-class colleagues. I will always take pride in all the great, innovative journalism we accomplished together."
Times staff writer James Rufus Koren contributed to this report.
8:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about corporate departures and the company's review of The Times' USC project.
5:10 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and comments.