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Passion for Reporting News Drives Baquet as an Editor

The New Orleans native was sold on journalism after his first few stories. He plans to continue his hands-on approach at the helm of The Times.

July 21, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

His colleagues in the newsroom and at papers nationwide know incoming Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet as a driven and perceptive journalist who loves above all to talk about how to cover the news.

When Baquet first joined The Times as managing editor five years ago, his deputies often felt overwhelmed; he suggested so many story ideas, they didn't know how they could possibly follow them all.

Over time, they came to realize that was just his style: Whatever his title, Baquet considers himself a reporter at heart. He is always trying to learn more -- and to find engaging ways to share that with readers. He is also competitive, delighting in every exclusive story.

Baquet says he plans to continue that hands-on approach in his new job.

"While I really love being an editor," he said, "the reporter instinct is what drives me."

One of five brothers, Baquet, 48, was born and raised in New Orleans, where his father owned several restaurants, including Eddie's, famed for its Creole gumbo and oyster loaves. The family lived for a time in a small apartment behind Eddie's; Baquet's chores included cleaning the restaurant floor every morning before school. In the afternoons, when he wasn't playing basketball, he'd shut himself in his room to write tales of drug kingpins for the fiction section of the high school newspaper, his brother Terry recalled.

Eager to test life outside the South, Baquet enrolled in Columbia University in New York.

One summer, he applied for an internship at the States-Item, the afternoon paper in New Orleans -- not out of any passion for journalism, but because it was an easy job for a college student to get. A few stories and he was hooked.

Jim Amoss, then a fellow reporter, recalls Baquet telling him: "I want to make people gasp over their morning coffee."

He did, too: One of his early scoops, in the summer of 1979, was an investigation into corrupt cops working the French Quarter. In rumpled sports coat and equally rumpled slacks, Baquet walked the streets at all hours searching for prostitutes and pimps willing to talk about the police officers who hit them up for sex or money.

Baquet heard that a particularly bullying officer had fired off his gun inside a bar in a drunken rage. Determined to corroborate the story, Baquet spent a morning clawing through the bar's plaster wall with his bare hands, looking for the bullet. He found it -- and broke a story that had New Orleans buzzing.

"He had an insatiable desire to find things out. I've never seen [reporting] come so instinctively for anyone," said Amoss, now the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which absorbed the States-Item.

Baquet returned to Columbia after his internship, but found that lectures on English literature couldn't compete with the adrenaline rush of daily journalism. He dropped out before earning a bachelor's degree to take a full-time reporting job.

"He told me this was a good, noble career," said Terry Baquet, who followed his older brother into journalism and works as Page One editor for the Times-Picayune.

Baquet spent seven years writing in New Orleans. In 1984, he took a job covering political corruption for the Chicago Tribune. He won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1988, when he led a team that documented corruption in the Chicago City Council.

Two years later, Baquet joined the New York Times.

"When he arrived, he had been studying the structure of New York city government for several months. He knew more about it on landing than many of our more experienced reporters did," said Joe Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, who became Baquet's mentor.

Baquet quickly moved into national investigative reporting; among the stories he remembers with pride is a piece on Hillary Rodham Clinton's commodities trading.

Jeff Gerth, a New York Times reporter who teamed up with him on that story and others, recalled Baquet as a superb investigator, skilled at unearthing documents and at persuading reluctant sources to talk. He was precise and fair, willing to drop any theory that didn't pan out. His one failing, Gerth said, was at organization.

"Put it this way: I wouldn't want him to be my accountant," Gerth said. "But I sure wouldn't want him digging into my tax records, either."

Baquet was promoted to national editor of the New York Times in 1995, and earned a reputation as a dynamic force, as good at motivating his staff as he had been at uncovering scandals.

"He has a significant ability to be in the room. When you meet with him, he's very focused on you. He's thinking about what you're saying, not drifting off somewhere," said Karen Brown Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute, which offers seminars for new and veteran journalists.

Though the New York Times' top editors lobbied him to stay, Baquet joined the Los Angeles Times as managing editor in August 2000. He lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Dylan, who writes fiction, and their 16-year-old son, Ari, a fanatical kart racer.

In the last five years, Baquet said, he has come to love Los Angeles, both as a home and as a story.

"It's the city of the future," he said. "It's a cliche, but everything that happens to the rest of America happens here first. Struggles over immigration are magnified here. Struggles over race and ethnicity are magnified here. Struggles over economics and social issues are magnified here."

Baquet said he planned to encourage more investigative reporting about the city and the state. He also plans to meet with readers and civic leaders.

But whatever his duties, Baquet will carve out time each year to return to New Orleans -- to shop for antique cuff links in the French Quarter, to eat his fill of gumbo and to visit his 83-year-old mother and his brothers.

"He grew up in this little environment in New Orleans, and his life just turned all around," Terry Baquet said. "We're beyond proud of him. Beyond proud."

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