L.A. Times Editor Crosses the Bottom Line
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Dean Baquet is taking a stand.
The editor of the Los Angeles Times is putting his career on the line, telling his corporate bosses at the Tribune Co. that he cannot abide deeper cutbacks in a newsroom that has already lost more than 200 jobs since the Chicago conglomerate bought the paper six years ago. If the company keeps slashing away, colleagues say, Baquet is prepared to leave.
"I think it's a highly principled stand, but obviously a highly risky one," says John Carroll, Baquet's predecessor as the top Times editor, who resigned last year, in part out of frustration with the constant cutbacks. "Every editor has to have a limit beyond which he won't go, and I guess we've just found Dean's."
A number of subplots are swirling as the Tribune board meets in Chicago today. Twenty civic leaders in Los Angeles have written the company, saying that Tribune should either stop squeezing the newspaper or sell it (possibly to one of several local billionaires who have offered to buy it, including entertainment mogul David Geffen). The Chandler family, which owned the Times for decades and is now the largest Tribune stockholder, has been pushing for a breakup of the company or a sale of some assets to boost the sagging stock price.
In short, one of the nation's largest media companies finds itself at the center of a morality play in which it is cast as obsessed with profits while Baquet is seen as rallying his troops under the banner of quality journalism. Four hundred Times staffers signed a letter that was sent to Tribune yesterday, supporting Baquet and his publisher, Jeffrey Johnson.
"We recognize that they've put themselves out on a limb, and we'd like to be out there with them," says metro reporter Jim Newton. "We wanted to stand up and be counted."
In a response to the 20 local leaders -- who include former secretary of state Warren Christopher -- Dennis FitzSimons, Tribune's chairman, defended his company's stewardship and ticked off a list of improvements. "The portion of the Times' total revenues dedicated to news coverage is currently almost double what it was during what many refer to as the 'golden age' of the newspaper, under Publisher Otis Chandler," FitzSimons wrote. He also noted that the Times had won 13 Pulitzer Prizes since the Tribune acquisition in 2000, five more than it had captured in the previous decade.
Still, FitzSimons noted, "we are committed to a companywide expense control program to offset inflationary cost increases and better deploy our resources."
The battle comes at a depressing time for the newspaper industry, plagued by declining circulation, sinking ad revenue and an Internet culture in which papers are expected to offer their product online at no charge. Shareholder pressure recently forced Knight Ridder to sell its newspaper empire and close up shop. At the Dallas Morning News, 111 of 580 staffers accepted a recent buyout offer. At The Washington Post, 68 of 819 journalists took an early-retirement deal over the summer. The new owner of the Akron Beacon-Journal, one of the former Knight Ridder papers, has axed 39 staffers, almost a quarter of the newsroom.
The shrinking of California's largest newspaper has occurred more gradually. In 2001, the Times was a behemoth, with nearly 1,200 journalists on the payroll. The paper now has 940, and has reported that Tribune executives would like to knock that down to about 800 -- a figure the company has not confirmed.
The essence of the debate is whether newspapers should bow to Wall Street demands for short-term results by slicing their staffs, or whether they are mortgaging their future by crippling the deeper news-gathering that separates them from television stations and Web sites.
Baquet, who is reported by his paper to have refused to give Tribune executives a budget-cutting plan at their last meeting, declined to comment. In an interview with his paper, he said: "I am not averse to making cuts. But you can go too far, and I don't plan to do that. I just have a difference of opinion with the owners of Tribune about what the size of the staff should be. To make substantial reductions would significantly damage the quality of the paper."