After four years at the helm, Los Angeles Times Editor Russ Stanton is stepping down, with Managing Editor Davan Maharaj assuming the top newsroom job.
Stanton, 52, joined The Times in 1997 as a business reporter in Orange County. He led the news organization for four years, a period in which it expanded its digital reach to more than 17 million readers each month and won three Pulitzer Prizes, including this year's Public Service award for exposing corruption in the city of Bell.
Stanton announced no immediate plans for his next move, saying his departure was a "mutual decision" between him and Times President and Chief Operating Officer Kathy Thomson.
"It is important to me to be leaving on my own terms, and that is what I'm doing," Stanton said when asked whether he faced pressure to leave over his resistance to possible staff cuts. "I am greatly looking forward to taking a breather and figuring out what the next challenge is."
Thomson said there was no connection between Stanton's departure and potential newsroom layoffs. She declined to comment on whether there would be a fresh round of staff reductions next year.
"Russ Stanton has been an outstanding editor for the Los Angeles Times over the past four years," she said. "As he moves on to the next phase of his career, we are extremely fortunate to have someone as talented and experienced as Davan Maharaj who can step in immediately with energy and vision for how to continue The Times' advancement in the digital age."
Maharaj, 49, will become the paper's 15th editor after Stanton departs Dec. 23. Maharaj has worked at the paper for 22 years, including as a correspondent in Africa.
His six-part series "Living on Pennies," which explored extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, won the 2004 Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Writing, and his investigation into the dubious practices of a Leisure World probate attorney prompted changes in California law.
Francine Orr, a photographer who traveled in Africa with Maharaj for the poverty series, said Maharaj once saved her from an angry mob that had surrounded her in Lagos, Nigeria.
"Other people are pushed to do better when they work with or are competing against him," Orr said.
A native of Trinidad with a political science degree from the University of Tennessee and a master's degree in law from Yale, Maharaj became Business editor in 2007, emphasizing greater coverage of consumer issues and personal finance. He has been managing editor for news since 2008, with responsibility for the foreign, national, metro, sports and business staffs.
"I am humbled and honored to lead one of the most talented and resilient newsrooms in the nation," Maharaj said. "Our commitment to delivering high-quality journalism remains unwavering."
Stanton presided over a tumultuous time in journalism, as declining newspaper circulation and advertising revenue prompted newsrooms across the country to contract. During his tenure, The Times' newsroom staff shrank from more than 900 employees to about 550.
He worked aggressively to transform The Times into a 24-hour operation that delivered the news across print, digital, mobile and video formats.
Alan Mutter, a former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who comments on the media in his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, praised Stanton's multimedia push.
"A growing number of people" are getting their news from online sources, Mutter said. "I think Russ identified it as a major strategic imperative, and he executed well on his plans."
Maharaj praised Stanton for his role in building The Times' strong Web presence, saying that just a few years ago the online staff was forced to go "hat in hand begging for stories to post online."
The Times is owned by Chicago-based Tribune Co., which is mired in a three-year bankruptcy case, a prolonged legal saga that underscores the dramatic shifts roiling the newspaper industry in the evolving digital age.
Online readership has surged at The Times and some other newspapers in recent years, but the industry has failed to turn that into significant advertising gains. Meanwhile, print readership has continued to decline throughout the industry, eating into revenue and led newspapers into a series of cutbacks.
John Carroll, who served as editor of The Times from 2000 to 2005 and left amid what he called "one layoff after another," said it was a demanding job "even in the best of economic times," but particularly precarious now.
"There are so many unknowns, the big one being what is the future of the newspaper business, the lesser one being who will own the Los Angeles Times when the bankruptcy ends," Carroll said.
Dean Baquet, who followed Carroll in the job and is now managing editor for news at the New York Times, described Maharaj as "a very ambitious, energetic, honorable guy."
"He always has had big ambitions for the paper," said Baquet, who left the Los Angeles Times in 2006 in a dispute over staff cuts. "You've got a guy who's running the paper who's a journalist."
Times columnist Steve Lopez said he hated to see Stanton go, saying "I'm not sure why he's suddenly leaving." He added, "Davan knows L.A., cares about the journalism and is willing to fight for the people who produce it."
Circulation of The Times' print edition has declined at a faster pace than many of its competitors', with average daily circulation sagging 21% since early 2009.
Geneva Overholser, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, noted that Stanton "presided over the newsroom during an exceptionally challenging time."
"Yet he managed to lead the staff to do remarkable reporting," Overholser said in an email. "He has been a solid editor, characterized by a straightforward and transparent style. I'd guess his successor will face even rougher challenges. Yet, for all its diminishment, The Times remains an essential institution for Southern California."
Speaking to staffers at The Times' downtown headquarters Tuesday, Stanton said it had been "a great honor" to serve as editor.
"I'm fiercely proud of the news and features report that you produce each day," Stanton said.
Times staff writer Walter Hamilton contributed to this report.