Steve Wasserman: Requiem for an Editor
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.
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.
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.