Dean Baquet was named yesterday as editor of the Los Angeles Times, which becomes the largest American newspaper ever to be led by a black journalist.
Baquet, 48, now the managing editor, moves up after the unexpected resignation of John Carroll, who is stepping down amid widespread newsroom nervousness about budget cutbacks imposed by the parent Tribune Co.
"I'm ready and I'm excited," Baquet said. "My goal is to make the L.A. Times the best paper in the country. . . . I expect there will be more belt-tightening. Obviously since I'm taking the job, I believe it's not going to keep us from continuing to get better."
Said Times columnist Steve Lopez: "There's disappointment that John is leaving and relief that Dean is taking over. Given the endless looming concerns about rumored budget cuts even in a time of huge profits, one would hope the powers that be in Chicago understand they will have a first-rate and profitable newspaper only so long as they support one."
Carroll, 63, did not dispute that "pretty heavy" budget pressures weighed on him. "I can't say I'm not concerned about financial pressures, but that was only one of a number of factors in my thinking," he said.
Baquet, who was national editor of the New York Times when Carroll tapped him five years ago, said it was "humbling" for a black journalist who began as a police reporter on the old New Orleans States-Item to take over the country's second-largest metropolitan daily. But, he said, "I like to believe I would have become editor of the L.A. Times once I went to work with John regardless" of race.
Among other major newspapers, African American editors include Gregory Moore, of the Denver Post; Kenneth F. Bunting, at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and Michael Days, of the Philadelphia Daily News.
Baquet declined to detail a recent round of budget meetings with Tribune executives in Chicago. In light of his pending promotion, he said, "it was perfectly reasonable for them to want to sit down and get a sense of what I was about."
Current and former colleagues speak highly of Baquet. "Dean is a highly demanding, high-metabolism guy to work for," said Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus. "He's on the phone with us five times a day. We're humiliated three or four times a week by the fact that he's thought up better Washington stories than we have."
New York Times editor Bill Keller said: "Dean's a prince -- a world-class investigator, an inspiring editor and a barrel of fun." But Keller said he hoped Baquet would start "fighting fair" in luring staffers: "He has this habit of telling recruits there's something in the New York water that makes your penis fall off."
Kevin Roderick, a former Times reporter who writes the Web site LAObserved, called Baquet "the popular choice by acclaim across the newsroom. If he had left, as people feared he was thinking of doing, it would have been a huge morale blow."
In corporate terms, Carroll, who ran the Baltimore Sun before heading west, would be described as a turnaround artist. When the Tribune Co. tapped him in 2000 after buying the newspaper, the Times was reeling from a scandal over sharing ad revenue with the Staples Center, the subject of a special magazine issue. Carroll and Baquet restored the newsroom's independence and led the paper to 13 Pulitzer Prizes, an extraordinary haul.
"John and Dean picked up a great newspaper that was wounded and flat on its back and made it better than it's ever been in its history," McManus said. "And they did that in a period that had tight budgets from beginning to end."
Kit Rachlis, editor of Los Angeles magazine, who called Carroll's departure "a real blow," said: "The real question is what Tribune is going to do with the Times. Are they going to impose more cuts? Are they going to bundle bureaus together, especially in Washington? Close down foreign bureaus?"
In one switch announced yesterday, Michael Kinsley, the former Slate editor hired by Carroll to run the editorial and opinion pages, will report to the new publisher, Jeff Johnson, not the editor.
The low-key Carroll, who embraced Baquet in the newsroom amid sustained applause when the two men made the announcement, said he had been "ruminating" about leaving for a year, although he plans to seek another job after a long vacation. He described his legacy as "rebuilding the paper in a way that was journalistically successful and made it a genuinely happy place to work."
Carroll said he was "very close" to former publisher John Puerner, who resigned in March, but dismissed suggestions by friends that this hastened his departure. He also heaped praise on his successor, saying: "I don't think there's a better person in the country of his generation. Dean plays all the notes."
Carroll drew national attention in 2003 when the paper published allegations that candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, now California's governor, had groped numerous women, some of whom refused to be identified by name. He also made news that year with a leaked memo that criticized the "apparent bias" of one of his reporters on an abortion story, writing that he wanted to challenge "the perception -- and the occasional reality -- that the Times is a liberal, 'politically correct' newspaper." Like most big-city editors, he has struggled with declining circulation, which dipped 6.5 percent earlier this year, to 908,000.
Baquet, a New Orleans native who left Columbia University without graduating to start his career, said he always viewed himself as a reporter, particularly an investigative reporter. Baquet won a Pulitzer in 1988 as part of a Chicago Tribune team that exposed corruption on the city council.
He gave up reporting at the New York Times, he said, because then-executive editor Joe Lelyveld "twisted my arm" and "made me become an editor" for a one-year trial.
While vowing to compete with his old newspaper and The Washington Post, Baquet said the Times must have a special focus on the entertainment industry. "I want the paper to have a real flavor of California," he said.