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Steve Wasserman: Requiem for an Editor

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Posted on Nov 8, 2006
Dean Baquet
From Columbia.edu

Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet said he would step down from the paper after publicly clashing with the newspaper’s corporate parent, Tribune Co.

By Steve Wasserman

Editor’s note: A former Los Angeles Times editor fleshes out the motivations behind the unceremonious Nov. 7 forced resignation of the Times’ respected editor, Dean Baquet, right.

  • Click here to read Wasserman’s Truthdig article “Chicago Agonistes: The Plight of the L.A. Times” (Nov. 2005)


  • It was always clear that the overseers at Tribune Co. in Chicago were never going to tolerate the rebellion by their underlings at the Los Angeles Times.  Jeff Johnson, the newspaper’s recalcitrant publisher and longtime Tribune loyalist, was unceremoniously ousted on Oct. 5. Then, on Nov. 7, Dean Baquet, the paper’s distinguished, obstreperous and Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, was forced out.  Both men had refused to countenance further cuts in the paper’s editorial staff.  What Chicago found intolerable was the public humiliation to which the two men subjected Tribune Co. Neither man went quietly.  They made plain their disagreement by speaking to the press and refusing to play the good soldier.  Baquet probably sealed his doom in late October when he spoke at the Associated Press Managing Editors conference in New Orleans, urging his fellow editors to resist unwarranted budgetary cutbacks that would compromise the journalism to which he and his listeners had dedicated their professional lives. For the boys in Chicago, Baquet’s call to arms doubtless added insult to injury.

    The implosion at the Los Angeles Times occurs at a moment when Tribune’s own future is in doubt—the company has solicited buyout offers and is contemplating selling off portions of its empire to raise shareholder value. Its strategy of synergy, aside from the gratifications of ego and pride attendant on empire-building, appears in shambles.

    A year ago in Truthdig.com I explored several salient factors that were combining to give us the paper’s current and continuing predicament: the general crisis of the newspaper industry; the near-colonial relations and clash of cultures between the paper’s distant owners in Chicago and its serfs in Los Angeles; and the special set of regional and local factors that antedate the arrival of Tribune Co. and which compromise or impede the ability of the newspaper both to grow in circulation and to increase its market share. These factors will continue to bedevil the paper no matter who ultimately buys it from Tribune—whether entertainment mogul David Geffen, who has sold off enough of his exquisite art collection to have already raised a quarter-billion dollars, or supermarket baron Ronald Burkle, or housing czar and civic do-gooder Eli Broad.

    What is plain is that Tribune Co.‘s toppling of the Johnson-Baquet regime reveals panic at the top.  For the truth is that the men at Tribune believe they are presiding over a dinosaur institution.  It may loom large for the moment—indeed, the paper’s reported 20 percent profit margin on a billion-dollar-plus revenue last year would, one might think, appease all but the greediest of Wall Street zealots—but the belief deepens that newspapering as we have known it is being rendered extinct by technology and a younger generation that is beguiled by devices that can electronically transmit content.  Moreover, advertisers too are steadily migrating away from print.

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    No one knows what to do.  Tribune, having bought the former Times Mirror Co. from the wily Chandlers for nearly $8 billion in March 2000, is desperate to recoup its investment.  Whatever Tribune’s public rhetoric, it is clear that the company is privately beginning to give in to despair.  Slash and burn is the order of the day.  Firing Johnson and booting Baquet will solve nothing and bring only temporary satisfaction.  The effect on the men and women left standing in the newsroom can only be chilling.  The message is clear: Speaking out will be punished.  Temerity will not be tolerated.  One prediction is safe to make: Tribune’s actions represent a triumph without victory.

     



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    By Loring Wirbel, November 9, 2006 at 10:47 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Paul Kibble compared the LA Times’ future to that of free “shopper” papers, which may be precisely where public-market investors want the daily media to go.  As Thomas Frank is pointing out, the market managers want the public citizen’s democratic rights limited to that of consumer rights, as buyer and seller.  A scary vision of the future is the new supermarket magazine called “Lucky.”  It is a magazine about shopping, with articles that tell you how to effectively buy the items that advertisers sell you.  It is almost impossible to tell the editorial pages from the advertising pages.  I’m afraid Wired magazine is moving this way as well, and if we’re not careful, investors will force the publicly-traded daily papers, weekly/monthly magazines, and Web sites to move in this direction as well.

    Report this

    By Hadley, November 9, 2006 at 10:19 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    I received warning from a friend in Chicago when the Trib took over the LATimes - a warning that has come true with the obvious demise of a once vibrant newspaper that reflected the city of Los Angeles and it’s deziens.

    As subscribers, we lowly ‘investors’ are being held hostage to a so-called ‘dying’  print media that shouldn’t be dying at all, but has been deemed out of vogue via certain investors who are most likely more interested in their off-shore profits for electronic media than the 4th Estate ‘in print’.

    Currently being forced to scan re-gurgetated cable news from the night before with no research or comment from the typesetter/page designer, sans intelligent editorial comment,  the “Times’ seems to be accepting talking head blather as truth-and has lost their way to the true professional integrity of publishing. Printing ‘all the news that fits the page’ just doesn’t cut it for a large metropolitan area such as Los Angeles.  This unfortunate path that the Suits in Chicago have chosen does drive one to internet blogs, hopefully composed by journalist with integrity, but not always the fact.

    The redesign of the front page of the “Times” seems to be a knock-off of an El Lissitsky Russian poster, which was popular during the past century’s ‘20’s & ‘30’s pre-depression WWI mode with ALL-CAPS screaming headlines, but departs ‘design’ with mixed-text serif subheads and family-friendly color photos ala Gannett’s US Today. It’s quite obvious that the paper has been redesigned by committee - or a wannabe Graphic Designer, utilizing all options with Microsoft software. As any designer will tell you, redesign is only successful when the ‘identity’ of the original source is not compromised. The enlargement of the masthead and sans serif text has destroyed the visual identity of the former ‘Times’ - and translates to confusion and loss of branding.

    Result of the loss of intelligent design & content?: It could be the Daily News, uh, it could be a Gannett pub…or, it could be a 2nd rate rag, to wrap fish.

    Report this

    By Ruth G Laidman, November 9, 2006 at 6:41 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    The day that the Los Angeles Times exchanged the giant,Robert Sheer, for the mouse,Joel Stein, was a bleak one indeed. I haven’t gotten over it yet.
    What were they thinking!

    Report this

    By Mike de Martino, November 8, 2006 at 11:38 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    To Chris Baron,

    Since you refer to me by name
    I will reply to you the same
    The LA Times will not reply
    To me or you and this is why

    The the writing talent of Robert Scheer
    was looked upon with to much fear
    The midget mind of Goldbergs seed
    Is what the paper thinks we need

    So read your paper mend it well
    I’d rather see it go to hell
    If you need to talk to me
    I’ll be where the speech is free.

    All the best,
    de Martino

    Report this

    By Emil Lawton, November 8, 2006 at 11:02 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Somehow, the editorial balance seems to have shifted uner the Tribune, but I missed some of the reporting and unbiased analysis of yore. For example, The Times used to have fact checker sections regularly analyzing the truthfulness or at least the actual claimed facts of political advertising. No more! Was it cowardice, Tribune interference or merely cuts in the editorial staff?

    Report this

    By Chris Baron, November 8, 2006 at 8:43 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    ...and who or what does Mr. de Martino think is going to replace the L.A. Times? Better to reform this paper, rehire Scheer, etc. than to let it die because of what the Tribune owners have done to it….

    Report this

    By Nick Faitos, November 8, 2006 at 5:58 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    The problems inherent when a high-profile, highly-esteemed newspaper is owned by a lower-profile, less-esteemed newspaper have finally manifested themselves.  Many of us have long complained about the Times’s out-of-town ownership, but would your friendly neigborhood billionaires, e.g., Messrs. Broad, Burkle or Geffen, provide the salvation?  I would think that they could be equally capable of turning the Times into a rag; non-newspaper people trying to put their stamp on a newspaper usually doesn’t work.  Who knows what the answer is. To think that Harrison Gray Otis was considered a bad guy! By the way, Steve, your eclectic Book Review is still missed.

    Report this

    By paul kibble, November 8, 2006 at 2:02 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. Thanks to its actions, the Tribune Co. has virtually guaranteed that one of the few remaining good if flawed newspapers in the country will, its is claimed, sink into the tar pits to make way for more “evolved” forms of information transmittal. But in fact this is Darwin in reverse, with the least fit specimens virtually ensuring the exntinction of the whole species. It began with the purge of Bob Scheer et al. and now proceeds apace with decimation of the upper echelons. It’s like watching Cro-Magnon man (or woman) make way for the Nenderthals.

    Gresham’s law applies as much to print media as it does to any other business venture. A newspaper intent on placating its shareholders
    by keeping an obsessive eye on the bottom line eventually condemns itself to mediocrity, after which it will fade into increasing irrelevance before the final curtain falls. 

    By the time the Trib bloodbath is finished, the L.A. Times will have roughly the same value as one of those “shoppers” that the postman sticks in my box every other day. Stop already: I have enough paper to line my birdcage for at least six months. However, there is that a new puppy I’m training. . .

    Report this

    By Walter L Battaglia, November 8, 2006 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Steve Wasserman’s summary states the main point clearly, but not in the Imperative mode the corporate owners intend: Obey!

    This is a spreading phenomenon, representing another twist of the corporate screws now reducing the United States, not just jounalists, to serfdom. Yesterday’s election actually did nothing to alleviate this fundamental problem.

    One solution is the growing number of Internet sites that offer other news and opinion. The problem with this approach is the difficulty people have in finding those sites. A virtue of the newspaper or magazine was in bringing several points of view under one roof; offering a central point for finding facts and opinions. Something like that can be done with the Internet; i.e., consolidate web sites. Of course, such a consolidation will only bring about the same pressures now on newspapers.

    Another alternative is splitting fact-finding from expressions of opinion. But, that is essentially the Grey Lady approach whicb is not working.

    I have kept my websites free of reader cost and outside advertising, but I’m just a little guy. My model assumes the sponsor is an independently wealthy patron, which I am not. How are the writers to make a living?

    I guess I should stop here. Baquet is sadly the latest in a continuing series of independent-minded people to get sacked. I think the Internet is a major solution to the problem, but maybe we all have to move to a very low cost island to implement that solution.

    Report this

    By vandrop, November 8, 2006 at 12:07 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Yeah - it’s a weird day.  Open the paper to wonderful news and crappy news all at the top of the page.  The election results are uplifting.  The ousting at the Times a rug pull.  But I guess we all saw it coming.  Think the Tribs tried to make it all happen under cover of the wild swirling news of the elections? 

    Oh yeah.  I am paranoid.  Gonna take a while to get over that.  If ever.

    Report this

    By Daniel Fyffe, November 8, 2006 at 11:43 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Thanks Steve for skimming some surface on an institution that to hoi polloi such as I remains rather murky.
    With no desire to play Devils advocate in the face of this slap, I still ask if the reasoning of firing a lauded journalistic champion may not equally emanate and result from more complex concerns and realities than those offered.
    It would indeed appear The Tribune Company acts as if loosing its shirt with the Los Angeles times.
    However looming fears in shifting realities of the news arena must also play a role in the peculiar stance and consequent actions.
    I sense how the purging of Dean Baquet indicates a larger motion, which incidentally must be considered with a great amount of sentimentality over what could have been.
    Still, let us not forget how media in a corporate sense is not to safeguard quality, truth or participation in creating a greater society but about generating revenue.
    It almost goes without saying how the integrity and ethical pride our finest journalists adhere to simply cannot fit the needs of an environment where cold cash reigns supreme.
    A traditional role of newspapers as bastions of integrity and untainted examination of facts, along being forums for healthy debate is a deteriorating standard across the boardrooms.
    Entertaining backdrops for advertisement has been the essence of television news for ages.
    Why wouldn’t large corporate newspapers eventually or inevitably follow such an exemplary lead?
    Perhaps a gargantuan undertaking while quite fitting for Truthdig would be an examination of the larger shifts in the news arena.
    Surely there must also be a large audience eagerly wondering what happened to the indications and practical ramifications of new ownership of the Los Angeles Times.
    In this day and age, most who are serious in their information retrieval seek out a broader spectrum of reliable sources online.
    The good news remains in how the internet provides inlets and outlets for both genuine examination of fact and idealistic pursuits.
    I haven’t heard the abundant female hollerin’ yet as I remain ever so optimistic about the net.

    Report this

    By R. A. Earl, November 8, 2006 at 11:06 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    I need to know WHO “the overseers at Tribune Co.” in Chicago are.

    All through these reports we read that “Tribune Co.” fired “A” or ousted “B,” information which I find useless unless and until I know EXACTLY WHO IS MAKING THESE DECISIONS. WHO IS THE RESPONSIBLE PERSON… I don’t give a damn who the responsible COMPANY is! A COMPANY NAME is just a smokescreen behind which hides a person, or people who actually are the DECIDERS.

    So c’mon, Truthdig. Give us NAMES of those who make decisions, and their positions and where they get their authority from.

    This kind of reporting is as useless as “The Government” said this or “The Government” did that. I want to know exactly WHO MADE THE DECISION! “The Government” isn’t a LIVE BODY and DOESN’T MAKE ANY DECISIONS… THE PEOPLE IN POSITIONS IN GOVERNMENT DO… so WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

    Report this

    By NETTIE, November 8, 2006 at 10:59 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    OH, I KNEW THE LA TIMES WAS GOING OVER TO THE DARK SIDE WHEN THEY BOOTED SCHEER WHOSE EDITORIALS WERE WORTH THE PRICE OF THE SUBSCRIPTON.  I QUIT ‘EM THEN.  NOW, I ONLY HAVE THE SAN DIEGO FISHWRAP.  THANK GOODNESS FOR THE INTERNET AND THE FEW GOOD NEWS MAGAZINES.

    Report this

    By Gloria Picchetti, November 8, 2006 at 10:54 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    The Chicago Tribune used to be an oasis for my Sundays. I read the Chicago Sun Times during the week. In another cost effective measure The Tribune dismissed the City News Bureau which was founded in 1888. This respected and useful agency was a source of local and breaking news. New reporters used to train there. I have not bought the Tribune since the cancellation of the City News Bureau this year. It’s my cost effective measure.

    Report this

    By mike de Martino, November 8, 2006 at 10:06 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Good riddance to the LA Times. The sooner this facist rag is put to bed for the last time, the better. I think their front page makeover should include a Swastika prominently displayed on the letterhead. Who needs free speech when it is distorted by the bias displayed on the pages of this newspaper. Were they there to show the financial ties of BHP Billiton The LNG company, to the Governor? Were they there to show the governors cynical hypocracy of signing an energy bill he doesn’t intend to enforce? No, they were there to carry water for the energy companies who are high fiving at an energy conference in San Diego the re-election of a governor who will do their bidding. Long live the internet.

    Report this

    By jeff gershoff, November 8, 2006 at 8:57 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Thanks, Steve, for this clear, even handed update on the Times’ on going death march.  Like yourself, Dean Baquet will be sorely missed by those of us (and I hope there are many) who could not envision a day without our daily newspaper.  Having grown up on The New York Times and then after a brief interlude with the San Franciso Chronicle, have been a daily reader of The Los Angeles Times for over twenty years now.  It is sad indeed to reflect over the insideous decay that has taken on multiple forms over the last decade or more.  The termination and loss of many of the papers most valuable assets such as yourself, Bob Scheer, Arianna Huffington, Baquet, etc. for political as well as philosophical reasons, while at the same time this wholesale surgical cutting away at the very muscle of the paper.  It feels like a self-cannibalizing by The Tribune Company.  It is all too frustrating to me because I’m down here at the consumer end, and don’t want to lose The Times.  As it is the cheap, thin, newsprint they’ve recently gone to, the plethora of horrible adds mid paper, the pandering to $$$, etc is all just too depressing.  Thank God, at least the elections went relatively well yesterday.

    Report this

    By Loring Wirbel, November 8, 2006 at 6:37 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    No media company should be publicly traded on the stock exchange.  Private companies can accept the 5 to 12 percent returns that may be all that newspapers in particular, but even many Web sites, can hope to generate.  No one can meet the 15 to 20 percent returns expected by Wall Street.  Take ALL media companies private, and keep strong editors.

    Report this
     
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