The Hot Seat

Los Angeles
November 2005

While his correspondents waded through the black water in submerged New Orleans, the new editor of the Los Angeles Times raced cars in the Sonoma wine country with his teenage son. He stayed in touch by phone, but Dean Baquet didn’t personally take over the coverage until five days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Skipping the biggest story of the year is surprising enough for the top editor at a newspaper with national ambitions, but Baquet is also the Times’ savviest New Orleans hand. He grew up there and worked at his family’s Creole restaurant. As a cub reporter he chased cop calls at the States-Item. The rising flood inundated his childhood neighborhood and forced his mother and dozens of relatives to flee.

“I’ve never been as emotional about a story,” Baquet told me a short while later. People are talking about his vacation, he knows, but he admits to no regrets. A long-standing promise to his only son, a racing devotee, came first. When they drove north, Katrina had not yet pummeled New Orleans. Once the scope of the calamity became evident, Baquet says, he called senior editors constantly. Even so, his absence shocked many in his newsroom—and not just because of the Big Easy connection. Baquet is a news guy who loves owning a hot story. He’s also a hands-on editor who’s full of ideas. When his hometown was ravaged, many assumed he would inspire the staff to excel on a once-in-a-lifetime story. In journalists’ slang it could have been his Howell Raines moment. Weeks after Raines took over The New York Times, 9/11 changed the world. His relentless direction of the Pulitzer-winning global-reporting swarm that followed defined his tenure as editor—at least until the Jayson Blair fraud scandal.

Whenever Baquet finishes his stint at the Los Angeles Times, probably no one will care that he went racing. But it’s a curious mixed signal for an executive taking over a news organization facing serious questions about the future. His staff is consumed with worries about layoffs, vanishing readers, and relations with the corporate masters at Tribune Tower in Chicago. Anxiety runs so high that on his first day in charge—two weeks before Katrina charged in off the Gulf—Baquet refused meetings with the paper’s business side and instead lined up sessions with reporters and editors in his glass office, where everyone could see his priorities in practice. He meant it as a subtle message that people should get past the distractions and concentrate on journalism. “I just want everyone to think about stories,” Baquet said.

Nice sentiment, but fat chance.

By then his newsroom knew that Baquet’s predecessor, steely John Carroll, had resigned ahead of schedule after five years, weary of cost-cutting demands from the Tribune Company. Carroll won 13 Pulitzer Prizes, the paper’s best run ever. That brought no relief from pressure to manage the Times more like the Chicago Tribune, a decent but inferior publication in the eyes of most editors in Los Angeles. Carroll is a gray eminence of newspaper journalism, and his friends in the business have told anyone who called that Tribune had driven him off.

“They want more profits, and they want them fast,” says Eugene Roberts, former managing editor of The New York Times and Carroll’s mentor. “You can understand why John wasn’t interested in staying if it meant having to preside over the dismantling of a great paper.”

Selection of the popular Baquet, Carroll’s managing editor for five years, eased the fears. He had won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting (at the Chicago Tribune, many years earlier) and favors serious journalism. Most, however, were not aware that he, too, had contemplated leaving. Baquet apparently was prepared to turn down one of the premier U.S. newspaper jobs if his promotion came with a mandate to downgrade the Times’ global reach and stature. Sources close to both men say they briefly discussed resigning together in a joint statement of no confidence in Tribune but that Carroll encouraged Baquet to stay. Baquet, who is 49, is a hot property. The New York Times recruited him from the Tribune, and he swiftly rose to be national editor. He is smart enough to reach the top despite his having dropped out of Columbia and his reputation for letting details slide. Baquet’s added sizzle is that he’s the only African American editor of a leading newspaper.

For many, his leaving would have confirmed the Chicago-ization of the Times, a creeping influence that extends to the sale of Chicago Cubs merchandise in the employee store. An exodus of top talent would likely have followed. Even critics—and there are plenty of those—would not like the depleted result of such a convulsive turn in the paper’s fortunes. Since that crisis has passed, neither Baquet nor Carroll want to relive their discussions or itemize frustrations with Tribune. “We’ve had a lot of talks about his future and what he should do, and I’ve tried to be a good sounding board for Dean,” Carroll says. “I laid my cards on the table with him—I wanted the newsroom to have him as editor because I think he’s the best possible person to do it. But I didn’t twist his arm—I just tried to be an honest friend in going over all the issues.” Asked point-blank how close he came to leaving, Baquet sidesteps. There were “long, long” soul-searching conversations with Chicago about the future of the paper, but “these were not unexpected conversations,” Baquet says. “They were about to give the editorship of their largest paper to somebody, and we had to get to know each other.”

Just because Baquet stayed doesn’t mean the Tribune bean counters gave in. He may have won concessions and a delay, but further tightening is on the way. “I wish I could make all the anxiety go away,” he says. “[But] the paper is going to have to shave off more costs.” Nothing draconian, he insists. Those talks in Chicago gave him confidence that the Times will be able to maintain its deep foreign and national staffs, redesign the Sunday magazine, and still have the resources to remain the biggest newspaper in the state. Baquet says that his vision is in sync with Tribune’s, more or less: “I walked away thinking we were close enough.”

Not a particularly high standard, perhaps, but around the building they’ll take it. Worries about losing jobs and the paper’s ability to carve out a future in the emerging digital media order still permeate the newsroom. Says John Montorio, the deputy managing editor for features: “Knowing Dean as I do, there’s no way he would be here if he wasn’t satisfied. He would not stay to dismantle the paper.”

At his farewell cocktail party in August Carroll was presented with a mock newspaper that included a large photo of him on his boat. The caption read, “John Carroll bails out of the sinking S.S. Tribune.” He says, however, that distaste at being required to trim again was only one of the reasons he quit. He might have a book left to write, his wife would like to travel more, and they intend to buy a house in Kentucky and settle there someday. (Their Pasadena home went on the market soon after he left the Times.) Still, at 63 and nearing retirement, Carroll found the prospect of squeezing more costs out of the budget highly untantalizing. He didn’t come to Los Angeles to think small after editing (and reporting for) good but midsize newspapers that envy the Times’ staff size and ability to spend.

In 2000, Carroll had been preparing to leave the helm of The Baltimore Sun for a cushy job running the Nieman Foundation at Harvard when the Tribune Company came begging. It had just bought Times Mirror and needed help turning around its largest paper. A miscalculated plan to devote a special issue of the Sunday magazine to the new Staples Center and share revenue with the arena had incited staff revolt and dented the Times’ image. Carroll thought the problems were fixable and took the challenge. He had some local roots—his great-grandfather worked at the Times and got credit in 1899 for owning the city’s first automobile. Carroll didn’t much care about fitting into the community, though. He didn’t drink with the mayor or network with Eli Broad. He pointedly declined most contact with Hollywood, except for a brief telephone chat with David Geffen, who expressed interest in buying the Times. (Tribune took Geffen seriously enough that CEO Dennis FitzSimons flew out to tell the DreamWorks mogul no thanks.)

Carroll preferred the company of journalists. He hired Baquet and raided The New York Times again to put Montorio in charge of feature coverage, including arts and entertainment. Around the paper so many senior editors got shuffled that when Carroll left, only two departments—sports and national—were run by the managers he inherited. Investigative reporting received the most attention, with a larger team in Washington and a unit in Los Angeles that won a Pulitzer for public service for exposing deadly conditions at King/Drew Medical Center. “I discovered to my amazement that it’s pretty damn easy to change this paper,” Carroll says. “If you can bat a thousand on your hiring for one year, you’ve got a new newspaper.”

Not new enough—or perhaps too new—for many ex-readers. The Southern California region has added millions of inhabitants in recent decades, but circulation has slipped below its 1970s levels. Many factors are to blame; however, the biggest plunge occurred as editors tinkered with local coverage. After Tribune took over, it shut down the last vestige of community-level reporting in much of the region. Neighborhood groups saw the discontinued Our Times package, and the twice-weekly suburban sections that came earlier, as their main connection to the paper.

Resources were diverted to revamping the skimpy Metro section into a fatter regional section called California. An editor from Long Island was brought in to run the local show. (She has since been replaced by an editor who knows Los Angeles.) Columnist Steve Lopez, a Carroll favorite, arrived from Time magazine. The California section looks more substantial but plays down Los Angeles. It carries news from Sacramento and remote locales near the Oregon border. However, the section runs fewer stories that bring the city to life. Those active in civic life increasingly complain that the Times doesn’t know what’s going on anymore. No paper is more complete or writes with greater authority about Los Angeles, but expectations are higher for the Times—or used to be.

David Abel should be the prototype of a reliable Times subscriber. He’s in his fifties and lives in Los Feliz, not the suburbs. He publishes two respected journals—The Planning Report and Metro Investment Report—and is active on community boards and committees. His life is intertwined with the affairs of Los Angeles. He knows most everybody, and he reads five newspapers most mornings. Yet, he says, “I can go days without reading the L.A. Times and not miss it.” It’s not that Abel rejects the coverage for being too liberal: He was an insider in Democrat Bob Hertzberg’s campaign for mayor. His concerns go deeper. He no longer considers the Times necessary. He hears from many others like himself—the participants and the shot callers of Los Angeles public life—who have broken their Times habit and turned to online media or national papers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which have sizable bureaus in Los Angeles and report a surprising number of exclusive stories from here.

“In some ways it’s a more journalistically professional paper,” Abel says of the L.A. Times. “But it’s incredibly detached from the city I know. There are whole swaths of Los Angeles that never make it into the paper.” He mentions a lack of stories about law firms and the legal community, the scientific community, the universities, and the nuances of local policy. “There’s some good people at the paper,” he says with a sigh.

“They just don’t know the city.”

The low profile kept by Times editors and Tribune executives doesn’t help. They don’t join local organizations or show up at parties. Michael Kinsley’s 15-month run as the head of the editorial and op-ed pages added to the estrangement for readers who want a prominent Los Angeles voice. Kinsley, the former TV pundit and editor of The New Republic and Slate, was Carroll’s biggest-name hire. He had never worked at a newspaper, and his first editorial for the Times, an “ironic reflection” on the murder of screenwriter Robert Lees, was spiked for bad taste. A noted liberal, Kinsley added conservative voices, oversaw reinvention of the Sunday Opinion section into the livelier Current, and dabbled at letting readers fine-tune editorials online and post to Times blogs. This experimentation had fans and detractors, but for many the low point came July 16 when that day’s space for editorials and letters was taken up with vignettes describing each editorial writer’s drive to work. “My commute is up two flights of stairs in my house, and then about 30 feet horizontally,” wrote Kinsley, who lives in Seattle. Soon after Carroll left, publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson asked for Kinsley’s resignation. His replacement, Andrés Martinez, promises more local focus and less innovation.

Hugh Hewitt, the conservative talk-radio host on KRLA, falls well to the political right of Abel and Kinsley. He reads half-a-dozen papers online every day but says that increasingly he excludes the Times—liberal bias is his chief complaint, but he calls the Times skippable on other counts as well. In July he used his blog to offer unsolicited advice to Johnson. Add more conservative opinions, yes, but also be more relevant: “Baquet’s much admired around the newsroom, and the guys in Chicago will give you a year, maybe 18 months. It isn’t clear that advertisers are that generous, and they appear to be figuring out the dramatic drop in your touch-rate…. Talk to the people who hate your paper but who love news. I read The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times. I don’t bother with your paper. There are thousands and thousands like me.”

It’s unclear just what the Times can do to attract more readers, since no big-city newspapers are adding appreciably to circulation. Baquet, however, stands a better chance of slowing the slide than did his predecessor. Carroll was proudly old school and felt that editors should edit and not be ambassadors to the communities they cover. They should follow their instincts and not do a lot of explaining. His public pissing match with Fox News was an exception. Five days before the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, the Times reported that the accusations that Arnold Schwarzenegger groped women on movie sets had merit. Schwarzenegger supporters and some media critics cried foul, but Carroll felt it was a no-brainer: Of course the state’s largest paper should look into charges of bad character involving a neophyte candidate. Fox bashed the Times repeatedly, leading Carroll to call host Bill O’Reilly an “evil man” and network chief Roger Ailes a “smear artist.” Ailes, in turn, called Carroll “elite, arrogant, condescending, self-serving, self-righteous, biased and wrongheaded.” None of it helped the Times reconnect with Los Angeles readers.

Baquet worked on the Schwarzenegger story, and Carroll says that it ran as soon as the editors were convinced the reporting was solid. Media culture has changed, though. Consumers need to be convinced of a journalist’s credibility, and Baquet says it’s likely that he will explain the paper’s decisions more proactively than Carroll did. He also plans to be a more visible presence in the community. Baquet lives in Santa Monica with his wife, the writer Dylan Landis, and their son, Ari, a high school junior. He has scheduled speaking engagements and done interviews. He talks of improving coverage of local politics and immigration, and of ramping up innovation on the Web. Baquet ordered senior editors to learn how the paper’s Web site works and to think about ways to use it better.

Baquet reads criticism of the Times on blogs, citing Hewitt, Patterico’s Pontifications, Slate’s Kausfiles, my own L.A. Observed, and the Elegant Variation, which critiques (and usually pans) each Sunday’s Book Review. Blogger obsession with liberal bias in the news pages is mostly ideological gamesmanship, Baquet contends, but he agrees that the paper needs to get better on its home turf. “We sometimes are a little reluctant to let California seep into our paper too much. If you ask me what’s the biggest thing I have to accomplish in the coming years, it’s to be perceived more as a California paper.” In addition to stronger reporting and more front-page stories, he says that might include a local gossip column. Already, Baquet says, film writer Robert Welkos—an investigative reporter who worked on the Schwarzenegger story—has been assigned to cover “celebrity sleaze.” He has filed talked-about pieces on salacious tapes allegedly made by Marilyn Monroe and the fight over Marlon Brando’s estate.

What won’t help is war with Chicago. The Tribune Company’s priorities for Los Angeles are pretty clear—attract more readers and demand a higher profit margin—and in a war Tribune would win out. “The focus is very much on growth,” says Scott Smith, president of the company’s newspaper division. “The Times does many things very well…but we need to find ways to broaden our base.” That could mean a new emphasis on readers in the Inland Empire and Ventura, where hunger for intensely local news and a more suburban sensibility has prevented the Times from developing loyal customers. Baquet understands that Tribune executives sometimes resent the arrogance of Los Angeles and knows his staff generally doesn’t look up to the journalism practiced by other Tribune papers. Part of it is justified. Part of it is ego. The Times, after all, used to be the capital of its own media empire. “I would like to manage a better relationship with Chicago than there has been,” he says.

An editor’s success depends to some degree on the publisher he gets to work with. Carroll enjoyed a close relationship with Tribune Company transplant John Puerner, who often sided with the newsroom and played guitar in a rock and roll band with reporters. “He had an instinctive understanding of what makes journalists tick,” Carroll says. “Some publishers these days just wish that editors and reporters could behave like little junior MBAs.” Puerner resigned in March after losing some intramural Tribune battles and declined to be interviewed. “My sense is that the people in Chicago thought he had gone native,” says Steve Wasserman, who left in May after nine years as editor of the Book Review. Johnson, the new publisher, spent five years in Los Angeles working for Puerner, but he is considered more attuned to Tribune’s desires. Johnson, who is 46, has to stop the Times from losing circulation faster than any top-level paper in the country—and halt an alarming decline in ad revenue—while cutting expenses and mediating the culture clash between Chicago and Los Angeles. Asked which paper is the Tribune flagship, he smiles and dodges diplomatically: “The whole company is filled with great newspapers.”

Johnson says the right things about strong national and international coverage forming the Times’ core identity and dismisses Baquet’s hesitation about the job as routine due diligence. Johnson won’t divulge the corporation’s financial targets, but Gene Roberts, Carroll’s mentor, says of the threatened cuts, “The conversations have all been in the five-to-ten-million-dollar range.” If true, that would carve a significant slice out of an annual news-gathering budget that totals about $110 million. Baquet says that the inevitable wounds will sting but won’t threaten vital organs. To minimize the damage, he has commissioned an “end-to-end” study of how the news-gathering staff spends time and money, everything from how many copy editors are needed to the best ways to operate bureaus. If it’s cheaper and smarter for national and foreign correspondents to work in home offices, Baquet says he may consider the idea. “I don’t think we’re looking at massive cuts,” he says, “but first I want to know what can be cut without hurting the newsroom.”

For Los Angeles itself, a lot is riding on Baquet’s making it all work. If the Times stops making enough money or Tribune decides to sell, there’s no reason to believe something journalistically better will fill the void. Los Angeles, as would be any city, is better served by a robust newspaper with the assets and the institutional courage to take on expensive investigations and stand up to sensitive advertisers and touchy politicians.

For Baquet, it’s mostly a compliment that some Times editors already bat around exit scenarios for him. After all, if he succeeds here, he’s still young enough to get the top job at The New York Times. In 2003, he rebuffed overtures by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to return there as number two. If things don’t work out in Los Angeles, he will still have been editor of a top newspaper—and there’s a good chance that any failure is likely to be pinned on Tribune’s penurious ways.

©Kevin Roderick 2005