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L.A. Times Editor Fired as Tribune Co. Remakes Itself

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet, who publicly told the parent Tribune Co. that he would not make more cuts in his newsroom, was forced out of his job yesterday, another example of the economic pressures afflicting large media companies.

The departure comes one month after former Times publisher Jeff Johnson was fired by Tribune for siding with Baquet and refusing to make more money-saving cuts after having made significant trims over the past few years.

Tribune, like all other major newspaper companies, has watched ad revenue and circulation slide in recent years, as readers increasingly turn to cable television and the Internet for news and information.

The Times' future is further muddied by the in-play status of Tribune, which has put itself up for sale and may have a single new owner or be split into parts. In addition to the Times, Tribune owns 11 newspapers, 25 television stations and the Chicago Cubs.

Baquet, 50, will be replaced by Chicago Tribune Managing Editor James O'Shea on Monday, Publisher David D. Hiller, who replaced Johnson, wrote in an e-mail to Times staffers. Baquet will leave the paper this week and was not commenting yesterday.

In an e-mail to staffers yesterday, Hiller wrote that he and Baquet "concluded that we have significant differences on future direction, and so Dean will be leaving."

Hiller did not mention additional cuts or layoffs, but wrote that he does "not have a definite view of staffing levels across the company" and that those numbers are being worked out as the paper comes up with a 2007 budget.

"Everybody gets to choose whether this is a direction they can support, and do so with excellence and passion," Hiller wrote. "But decide we all must, because the last thing we can stand is confusion on our mission and objectives. It's going to be hard enough as it is."

Now, as a high-profile journalism martyr -- Baquet was willing to sacrifice his job rather than make cuts he deemed harmful to his paper's news coverage -- he may entertain job offers from other news organizations, as well as foundations and think tanks.

His firing becomes a symbol of the current struggle that newspapers and all traditional media face: As they struggle with shrinking audiences and convert to digital delivery -- be it online or on handheld devices -- they must cut costs. Though online advertising revenue is growing, newspaper Web sites account for at most only 10 percent of a big newspaper's advertising revenue. That's not enough to support the staff size most newspapers have grown accustomed to over the past half-century, when they enjoyed local monopolies on news and advertising distribution.

The tough times are not limited to newspapers. Struggling television network NBC, for instance, said last month it would cut 700 jobs and slash $750 million from its budget by the end of 2008 to help pay for the network's conversion to digital delivery of television programming.

Baquet had been negotiating with Tribune Co. executives since Johnson's departure, and the two sides could not agree on the number of required newsroom staff cuts. Baquet had planned to announce he was leaving Thursday, but the news leaked out yesterday.

Reporters at the paper described a dramatic scene yesterday when Baquet called the newsroom together in the afternoon, climbed on a desk and told them he'd been fired. Staffers applauded before and after Baquet spoke and some were in tears.

He was described as upbeat, saying: "Put out a good paper tomorrow. Give me something to be proud of."

Hiller addressed the room afterward, and, according to one staffer, drew some sneers by noting that yesterday's events had been hard on him, as well.

Times reporters described the atmosphere at the paper as "dismal," "rock bottom" and "like a crypt." "I can't imagine how you could ruin the reputation of a paper and kill morale more quickly in one fell swoop" than to fire Baquet, said one Times staffer in the paper's Washington bureau. "We're all just dumbstruck." Times reporters and editors spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their jobs.

But several of them downplayed rumors of a mass exodus from the paper. "That really wouldn't serve any purpose," one reporter said. "People have tuition to pay, kids to feed but they also still want the newspaper to improve."

At one point, the L.A. Times had a newsroom staff of 1,200, which has been trimmed to about 940. Its daily circulation through September was 775,766, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

By comparison, the New York Times, with a daily circulation of 1,086,798, currently has about 1,200 newsroom employees. The Washington Post, with a daily circulation of 662,100, has about 750 newsroom staffers after a recent buyout.

Tribune Co. acquired the L.A. Times as part of Times Mirror Inc. in 2000, also gaining the Baltimore Sun and other papers.

At a speech to editors in New Orleans late last month after Johnson had been sacked, Baquet said: "This is a giant moment in the life of newspapers. We all understand the business model is changing and we have to do some cutting . . . but don't understand it too much."

Baquet said he found editors "all too willing to buy the arguments for cuts," saying newsroom bosses "need to be a feistier bunch." At the time, Baquet said he considered resigning but decided to stay at the paper.

Poor stock performance by the Tribune Co. has led to a boardroom revolt. A minority of directors have agitated for a sale or breakup of the company to raise shareholder value. The company has received bids from at least two private-equity groups and said it will conclude the process by the end of the year.

Staff reporters Tamara Jones in Washington and John Pomfret in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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