Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Corporate Pukes Fire LA Times Editor

November 8, 2006

Los Angeles Paper Ousts Top Editor

New York Times

Dean Baquet, the editor of The Los Angeles Times, who defied orders from his corporate bosses to cut jobs, was forced out of his own job on yesterday, shocking the newsroom just as it was gearing up to cover election returns.

He is to leave his post Friday and be replaced by James O’Shea, the managing editor of The Chicago Tribune, who will start Monday.

Mr. Baquet’s departure follows that of the paper’s publisher, Jeffrey M. Johnson, who openly objected to cuts ordered by the Tribune Company in September and was fired last month.

David Hiller, who replaced Mr. Johnson as publisher, said in a statement yesterday that he had been having discussions with Mr. Baquet about staffing levels. While the company maintained its position that further cuts might be necessary, Mr. Baquet still considered them excessive.

“After considerable discussion during the past several weeks,” Mr. Hiller said, “Dean and I concluded that we have significant differences on the future direction of The Times."

Colleagues of Mr. Baquet’s said the firing had less to do with a dispute over job cuts than his vocal resistance to them, made plain in a speech last month in New Orleans, in which he encouraged editors at other newspapers to “push back” against owners who wanted to cut newsroom staffs.

In fact, when Mr. Hiller addressed the newsroom yesterday, he said he expected no job cuts at least for the rest of the year, and he told editors it was still possible that any further cuts could be reached through attrition, according to people at the paper.

Mr. Hiller said in an interview later that public debate was not a "fatal problem." But he added of Mr. Baquet’s speech in New Orleans: "I did not think it was helpful to Dean and me in working through things. My issue was what it said about whether we saw eye to eye on how we lead this great newspaper forward."

Of future job cuts, he said he did not know what next year would bring, and he did not have a specific staffing level in mind, but that "over time" he expected that the staff would be reduced. In the last five years, the newsroom’s size has fallen to 940 from about 1,200.

Colleagues said Mr. Baquet was considering having lunch next week with David Geffen , one of three Los Angeles billionaires who have expressed interest in acquiring The Times. Tribune Company, under pressure from investors, is considering selling some or all of its assets, which include 10 other papers and two dozen television stations.

The hope of some in the newsroom is that Mr. Geffen, or someone, buys the paper and rehires Mr. Baquet as editor.

The Los Angeles Times has steadily lost circulation in the last decade or so, falling to 776,000 daily as of Sept. 30 from a peak of 1.2 million in 1990.

The two-month showdown in Los Angeles has been a stark example of the conflict between many newsrooms and boardrooms across the country as newspapers face an economic slump and continued demands by Wall Street for improved financial results.

The stock prices of most public newspaper companies have fallen in the last two years, yet many of the publications remain profitable. The Los Angeles Times reported that its operating profit margin was 20 percent, higher than that of the average Fortune 500 company.

Mr. Hiller said in his statement that changes were "threatening the financial position of the whole industry,” and that the cuts were not about maintaining high profit margins. "Look no further than recent reports on other large metro papers in Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas and San Francisco,” he said.

Many colleagues of Mr. Baquet said they had considered his departure a matter of time. The news was supposed to be announced on Thursday, but word began leaking out yesterday, and at midafternoon, Mr. Baquet confirmed it to his staff. “Believe me, I didn’t want it to come out this way,” he wrote in a memo. He could not be reached for comment last night.

Many on the staff of The Los Angeles Times said the news caught them off guard and threw the paper into turmoil, coming on election night, one of the busiest and most complicated for news organizations. Mr. Baquet’s departure, on top of the potential sale of the paper, creates even further uncertainty for the staff.

“People are crushed,” said Alice Short, deputy metro editor. “People really believed in Dean and that as long as he was in that front office, we were going to be okay.”

Vernon Loeb, an investigations editor, said the staff was stricken. “It was like a parent had just died,” he said. “We’ve kidded ourselves into thinking that Dean is such an artful dodger, he could play this string out forever.”

It was not immediately clear whether other editors who were close to Mr. Baquet would leave in solidarity with him. But the two managing editors said they would stay. One, Douglas Frantz, said in a memo to the staff, "While I’m angry and heartbroken, I’m not quitting." The other, Leo Wolinsky, said, “Losing Dean is the most difficult change I’ve had to weather. But he added, “I intend to stay and fight to keep this paper great.”

Mr. Baquet’s prospects for future employment, at least in the newspaper business, seemed uncertain. For Mr. Baquet, editor of the country’s fourth-largest paper, there are only a few other newspaper jobs that would be considered promotions or even lateral moves. His options might be further limited by a reluctance on the part of publishers to hire someone who had openly defied his paper’s owners.

Moreover, Mr. Baquet had begun going on the road with his message of newsroom resistance. In his speech in New Orleans, he encouraged editors at other newspapers to resist cuts, a problematic view as the newspaper industry retrenches and many papers are cutting their staffs.

“We need to be a feistier bunch,” Mr. Baquet said in New Orleans at the annual meeting of The Associated Press Managing Editors. He said the public service aspect of newspapers was at stake, even as the industry faced declining revenue. “We understand the business model is changing and we have to do some cutting,” he said, “but don’t understand it too much.”

The news of Mr. Baquet’s ouster prompted a local group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, to urge subscribers to tell the Tribune Company to stop further cuts at the paper or to risk cancellation of their subscriptions.

Jamie Court, president of the non-partisan, non-profit group, also scolded the company for allowing the news to come out on a busy news day, saying, "It is obvious that the owner of Los Angeles’s largest news organization wanted to bury this news in the maelstrom of Election Day, even at the risk of shaking up its staff."

Mr. O’Shea was named managing editor at The Chicago Tribune in 2001. Before then, he was deputy managing editor for news and worked at the paper in a variety of assignments, having joined the paper in 1979 after working as a reporter, editor and Washington correspondent for the Des Moines Register.

Mr. Baquet’s staff gave him a sustained ovation yesterday as he stood on a desk in the newsroom to announce he was leaving. He said he did not want them to dwell on the last month but to remember the last six years, during which the paper broke news stories, forced laws to be changed and won Pulitzer Prizes.


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