Los Angeles Times Editor John S. Carroll will retire next month and be succeeded by Managing Editor Dean Baquet, the newspaper announced Wednesday.
Carroll's departure comes after a five-year tenure marked by numerous journalism awards and a struggle with declining readership and flat revenue.
Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson announced the changes just before noon in a meeting with about 200 reporters and editors in The Times' newsroom. He praised Carroll for leading an "incredibly special" period in the newspaper's history -- a period that included 13 Pulitzer Prizes -- and said Baquet had the qualifications to continue that performance.
Carroll, 63, said a number of factors led him to retire, including the "desire to be a free man again after all these years editing three newspapers." He also acknowledged being bothered by continuing pressure to cut his newsroom's budget.
The promotion of the 48-year-old Baquet won wide praise within the Times newsroom and in the newspaper industry, where he was known first as a dogged investigative reporter, then as an innovative national editor of the New York Times.
The general good feeling over the succession was tempered by concerns inside and outside the Times newsroom about the key challenge facing the new editor: how to maintain the newspaper's standing at a time when the Tribune Co. of Chicago, which owns The Times, continued to push for lower newsroom spending and bigger profit.
Baquet's promotion to editor and executive vice president followed days of sometimes tense negotiations involving Baquet, Johnson and a corporate executive in Chicago. As recently as two weeks ago, Baquet threatened to leave the newspaper, according to several Times staffers who spoke to him. He told some of his top editors that a meeting with Tribune managers before the Fourth of July weekend had left him wondering whether he would have the freedom, and funds, needed to maintain the paper's worldwide news operation.
Baquet eventually got the reassurances he wanted from the Times' corporate parent, said some of his close associates.
"Have I had disagreements with Chicago and others about the paper? Sure," Baquet said in his office Wednesday. "But obviously I feel like I am in sync enough with the people who own the joint" to have accepted the editor's job.
Baquet said he might take a couple of months to choose his successor as managing editor, and that he would consider splitting the assignment among more than one editor.
Johnson said he would assume control of the newspaper's opinion and editorial pages from the editor -- an arrangement Baquet said he supported. The change is designed to provide a clearer dividing line between the news and opinion sections.
Before buying the Los Angeles Times' parent company, Times Mirror Co., in 2000, Tribune newspapers had a profit margin near 21%, but that slipped to 17.6% last year, said John Morton, a veteran newspaper analyst. Industry leader Gannett earned 27.7%. During the last 12 months, The Times also suffered its steepest circulation declines in at least 34 years, as daily sales fell 6.5% and Sunday's paid readership plunged 7.9%.
Such pressures confront many other newspapers, but they make it particularly difficult for The Times to maintain its state, national and international coverage.
"The profit margin is going to have to be a lot higher than it is now before that pressure gets relieved," Morton said. "Even with the cuts that have been made in The Times' newsroom, I would think [the staff is] still ... too big by Tribune standards."
Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, called it "somewhat miraculous and at least faintly encouraging that The Times has survived and thrived" while facing the corporate profit imperatives.
"But I'm under no illusion that if it's profits vs. a deeper bench on the foreign staff, for instance, which way they will have to go. It will be with profits."
Baquet told his staff that his goal was to make The Times "the best newspaper in America" and that its excellence would distinguish it from the growing ranks of information outlets, particularly on television and the Internet.
"Even though this is a rough time for newspapers, the solution is pretty easy," he told the journalists gathered in the newsroom. "The solution is to do hard-hitting, tough reporting; to do great stories and great photography."
Baquet represents a departure from Carroll on several counts. While Carroll operates with a genteel reserve, the outgoing Baquet likes to bounce around story ideas -- often sending journalists off with a hug or his trademark "Be good!"
Both men grew up in the South. Carroll is the son of a prominent newspaper editor, whereas Baquet was reared in a working-class section of New Orleans by parents who owned a neighborhood Creole restaurant. His promotion will make him the first African American to run a top-level American newspaper.