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Times Editor Is Out After Fighting Cuts

Dean Baquet defied a corporate effort that he said would diminish quality.

November 08, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet will step down from his post Friday after, he said, he was asked to resign for opposing additional staff reductions that he feared would threaten the quality of the newspaper.

Times Publisher David D. Hiller announced Tuesday that Baquet would be replaced by James E. O'Shea, currently managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and a 30-year news veteran with experience in national, foreign and investigative reporting.

Although Hiller acknowledged "significant differences" with the outgoing editor, he said that large job cuts were not certain and that he and Baquet had mutually agreed on the departure.

Baquet, the first African American to lead one of the top U.S. newspapers, stirred a national debate about the future of the struggling industry in September when he publicly defied attempts by Chicago-based Tribune Co. to reduce The Times' editorial staff of 940.

Then-Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson joined Baquet in that stance, which cost Johnson his job early last month and created a cloud over the editor's future at the nation's fourth-largest daily newspaper, which has a weekday circulation of about 776,000, down from more than 1 million in 2000.

The management turmoil comes as Tribune seeks offers from potential buyers for the company or its parts, including The Times. Entertainment mogul David Geffen, the most aggressive of three local suitors for the paper, declined to comment Tuesday about the situation.

The change was not supposed to be announced until Thursday, but when word leaked Tuesday afternoon, Baquet hastily acknowledged he was leaving in an e-mail to the staff.

"I like to think that, no matter what happens from here on in, that I helped create a full-bodied debate about cuts in newsrooms and the impact that has on covering the news," Baquet said in an interview. "And I think that's important."

The news was greeted with anger and sadness in The Times' newsroom, interrupting preparations for election-night coverage. Several staff members wept. One confronted Hiller and demanded to know why a change had to be made as Tribune was fielding bids. Some in the newsroom were deeming the loss of Baquet "the election day massacre."

Just weeks earlier, Baquet had received widespread support when more than 600 newsroom employees signed a petition sent to Tribune saying they backed their editor.

At about 3 p.m., Baquet addressed about 200 journalists gathered in one end of the third-floor newsroom. Standing on a desk so everyone could hear him, the 50-year-old editor acknowledged staff members' feelings but urged them to keep working hard to preserve what he called "the best paper in the country."

"I want to remind you that the people in this room are the people who are going to lead this paper forward," the editor said, his voice thick with emotion. "You are the people who have the creativity, the smarts, the courage, the willingness to take risks to keep making the paper better."

Just one month on the job after serving as publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Hiller called Tuesday a "difficult" day "that I hoped we would not see." But he acknowledged that he and Baquet had come to an impasse. When Hiller stepped down from a desk after addressing editorial staffers, a faint hissing could be heard amid the light applause.

The decision about Baquet's departure was made a little more than a week earlier, after the editor returned from a week in his native New Orleans. The editor visited his family there and gave a speech to the Associated Press Managing Editors, urging newsroom managers to be "feistier" and not so accepting of pressure for cutbacks.

Hiller told some associates that he was unhappy that the editor continued to make such a loud public case about cuts, a sensitive matter that he thought should be discussed in private.

On the Monday that Baquet returned to work, Oct. 30, the decision was made that he should step down as editor.

Word of Baquet's exit first surfaced on the Wall Street Journal's website early Tuesday afternoon.

Hiller rushed out of a lunch meeting with senior editors Tuesday after his secretary handed him a note. He looked up, hesitated, and then without explanation said: "Gotta go."

Just minutes later, Baquet's departure was confirmed.

"I can't sugarcoat it," Hiller said, addressing the editorial staff immediately after Baquet on Tuesday afternoon. "Part of it was a discussion of staffing. But I don't think that is what all of this is about. This is about the future of our industry and whether we have one and whether it's a good one."


Proposed staff cuts

A budget that will be presented to Tribune executives Thursday in Chicago will include only staff reductions through attrition.

"We are not going to have any cuts before the end of the year," Hiller said. "I don't have a number in my head."

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