By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Dean Baquet, who was ousted as editor of the Los Angeles Times last fall after refusing to make sweeping budget cuts demanded by his corporate bosses, is coming to Washington.
Baquet is rejoining the New York Times, where he worked for a decade, and will take over the paper's Washington bureau, ending speculation that he might try to regain his old job if the Tribune Co. sells the Los Angeles paper.
"I know this will make some people at the L.A. Times sad, and leaving the L.A. Times was a sad experience for me," Baquet said yesterday. But he said he is excited to come to Washington "while there is a debate over the war, and an election that will be the most exciting since 1968."
Asked about Baquet's public defiance of Tribune executives, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said: "I admire Dean's stance tremendously. I think he'll find the business side at the New York Times much more in tune with his values. . . . What Dean brings to everything he does is infectious enthusiasm and aggressive intelligence."
Baquet said he had no "inside knowledge" whether Tribune, which has accepted bids for a possible sale of the company, might spin off the California paper. He said he had "some casual conversations" with two billionaires, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, who have submitted a bid to purchase Tribune, and that "obviously, I thought there was a chance I could go back" as editor if they bought the paper.
"But it became clearer and clearer that wasn't likely to happen on a timetable that works for me, and the New York Times was clearer in telling me they wanted me back. . . . I hope and pray things work out really well at the L.A. Times."
The news was greeted with disappointment in Los Angeles, where many Times staffers are furious with Tribune for driving out Baquet and the former publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, who had also battled the Chicago-based company over budget cuts.
"It's a stunning loss for us, and people here are really, really disappointed," said Vernon Loeb, the paper's investigations editor. "We've all been clinging to a slender reed of hope that he would come back. . . . But now that the inevitable has happened, Dean's loss -- once and for all -- is like a punch in the stomach."
But Doyle McManus, who runs the Los Angeles Times bureau here, was more pugnacious, saying in a memo that his team would kick the rival bureau's butt. "To be low-minded about it," McManus wrote, "well, it will still be the NY Times, still encumbered by that paper's institutional weaknesses and still, even with Dean on the premises, an often unpleasant place to work."
Baquet, who takes over March 5, will replace Philip Taubman, who will receive the title of associate editor and a reporting assignment involving national security, based in California. His wife, New York Times environmental reporter Felicity Barringer, will cover her beat from there.
Taubman said he is looking forward to resuming a "writerly life," adding: "I'll be leaving the bureau in great hands and with a sense of great satisfaction about the stories the Times has broken in Washington on my watch," including the disclosure of President Bush's domestic eavesdropping program.
Baquet, 50, a New Orleans native, is a smooth-talking editor with a blunt style, a passion for investigative reporting and a knack for inspiring loyalty among his troops. He won a Pulitzer Prize at the Chicago Tribune in 1988, and was national editor of the New York Times when he left to become managing editor of the Los Angeles Times in 2000.
Five years later, when John Carroll, the L.A. Times' top editor, quit, in part out of frustration with Tribune budget-cutting, Baquet became the first black editor in the paper's history. The paper won 14 Pulitzer Prizes during Baquet's tenure as editor and managing editor.
But like many big-city papers, the L.A. Times has suffered from declining circulation and revenue. In September, Baquet threatened to quit if the Tribune didn't scale back its plan for another round of deep newsroom reductions. The newsroom staff of the Times had declined from 1,200 to 940 over five years, and the newspaper said Tribune executives wanted to shrink the staff to about 800.
Word leaked on Election Day that Baquet had been fired. He was replaced by the Chicago Tribune's managing editor, James O'Shea.
"We'd made significant cuts at the paper," Baquet said yesterday. "I understand the economics of newspapers. We just got to the point where continued cutting was going to significantly damage the paper. I didn't feel it was my job to make a paper worse. I have no regrets. I couldn't live with myself if I had done it."
Keller said he and other editors stayed in touch with Baquet but "didn't do what you'd call active recruiting until his final weeks in L.A." Baquet said he has read most of Philip Roth's novels and is eager to get back in the game.
Asked whether becoming a bureau chief is a step down, Baquet said: "My favorite thing to do at newspapers is to sit down with reporters and talk about stories, to shape coverage, and I'll get to do a million times more of that than I did as editor of a paper."