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L.A. Times Editor Crosses the Bottom Line

Dean Baquet, right, became editor of the Tribune Co.-owned Los Angeles Times in August 2005, following the retirement of John Carroll, center.
Dean Baquet, right, became editor of the Tribune Co.-owned Los Angeles Times in August 2005, following the retirement of John Carroll, center. (By Al Seib -- Los Angeles Times)

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Tribune's 10 other papers have been through their own rounds of belt-tightening. The Chicago Tribune let go 28 editorial staffers and ended WomanNews as a stand-alone section in December; editors have finessed demands for more layoffs with an alternative budget-cutting plan. The Baltimore Sun has closed all five of its foreign bureaus.

At the Hartford Courant, which said this week that it is folding its Sunday magazine, staff writer Rinker Buck complained in an open letter to his publisher "that Tribune's 'cost center' mentality is alienating your workforce, driving readers away in droves and contributing to a loss of confidence among advertisers and the civic community."

The showdown with Baquet is the most attention-grabbing since Jay Harris resigned as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News five years ago, with a blast at his Knight Ridder bosses for demanding damaging cutbacks to maintain a 22 percent profit margin.

Analysts don't expect a dramatic announcement at today's Tribune meeting, but say the company -- which has launched a $2 billion program to buy back some of its stock -- will eventually have to decide whether to sell the Times, its 25 television stations or even the Chicago Cubs.

Tribune executives, who declined to comment, have long had a reputation for demanding -- and getting -- an ample return on investment. Carroll says he was pressured to make cuts that would keep the profit margin around 20 percent, where it remains today.

"No doubt some of the cuts were justified," Carroll says. "But there seems to be no end to the cutting and no strategy for stabilizing the paper and building its future. These cuts are prompted by a short-term need to hit financial targets. . . .

"The L.A. Times is one of the four papers that constitute the top tier in American journalism. At the rate the L.A. Times is being dismantled, it won't stay in the top tier very much longer."

Some journalists privately question Baquet's strategy of going public, especially since the Times still has a larger staff than all but a handful of American papers, with a large Washington bureau and a network of foreign correspondents. But the years of cutbacks have decimated the local staffs in such key suburban areas as Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley, while the photo and graphics departments have been reduced by at least a third. "While numbers don't equal quality," says Newton, the Times reporter, "this is a big, complicated region to cover, and it does take a certain number of boots on the ground."

The paper's circulation, which in 1999 was 1.1 million, is now 852,000, down 5.4 percent in the last year alone -- greater than the average decline for big-city dailies but typical of the overall trend.

Baquet came to the job with a gold-plated résumé and a reputation as a demanding yet collegial boss. As a reporter, he was part of a Chicago Tribune team that won a 1988 Pulitzer for exposing waste and conflicts of interest on the City Council. He was a Pulitzer finalist at the New York Times before being elevated to national editor, and left that paper when Carroll tapped him as managing editor.

The new team restored the newspaper's credibility, which had been badly tarnished by a scandal in which an issue of the Sunday magazine was devoted to the Staples Center while sharing ad revenue with the sports arena. When Baquet succeeded Carroll, the Times became the largest newspaper to be run by an African American.

Colleagues who have spoken with Baquet say he does not want to resign, but they also recognize that he and Johnson might eventually be forced out over the impasse.

The parties seemed to be sending a conciliatory signal yesterday, though. Publisher Johnson told his staff in a memo that he met with Tribune Publishing President Scott Smith in Chicago on Tuesday and "reiterated our commitment to build a credible financial plan in the coming weeks that is grounded in actions and initiatives that efficiently build readership and revenue." Johnson did not address the question of further layoffs, but what he called the "awkward" media coverage of internal deliberations may have had an impact on the executives at Tribune Tower.

"Dean has the support of 100 percent of the editorial employees," says Vernon Loeb, the state investigations editor and a former Washington Post reporter. "He's an unbelievably courageous and inspiring leader, and everyone is behind him."

Columnist Tim Rutten agrees that the staff has closed ranks behind Baquet. "If this place were any leaner, it'd be skeletal," he says. "Measured against the ambitions of the L.A. Times, it's a barely adequate number of people. I think there's a feeling that people in Chicago don't understand L.A."

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