Q&A: L.A. Times Editor Exits

After only 18 months in charge of the nation's fourth largest daily newspaper, Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet was forced to resign on Tuesday. For months he'd publicly resisted making staff cuts that the paper's owner, the Chicago-based Tribune Co., demanded as part of an effort to downsize and consolidate resources to reverse a declining stock price. No one has covered the Times's troubles more closely than Kevin Roderick, a former Times reporter who now edits LA Observed ( www.laobserved.com ), a Web site covering media and culture. He talked to Newsweek's Andrew Murr. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What led to Baquet's departure?

KEVIN RODERICK: A couple of months ago, the Tribune company told Baquet that they wanted him to execute more budget cuts and he refused. The publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, also refused. Within a couple of weeks, Johnson was out the door. A new publisher, David Hiller, was appointed from the Chicago Tribune. He made public announcements saying that he would take some time and see how he and Baquet got along. Clearly, they didn't get along very well.

Baquet made a speech in New Orleans last month that may have gotten him in trouble.

He talked tough and urged editors to be feisty to their publishers and corporate officers. This came as he and Hiller were feeling each other out. Hiller said yesterday that it had something to do with his decision to ask Baquet to resign.

How did staffers react to Baquet's announcement?

The newsroom is devastated. Baquet had only been the editor for 18 months, but he'd been the managing editor for four-plus years before that. He was very popular. And more than that, he was seen as the last hope of protecting the L.A. Times from the culture war of the Tribune Company, which doesn't like Los Angeles and doesn't like the people at the Los Angeles Times. He was seen as this absolute paragon of principle.

Baquet's departure stimulated an offer for the Tribune Company Wednesday by two locals.

News broke [on the Times's Web site] that [supermarket magnate] Ron Burkle and [homebuilding mogul] Eli Broad have teamed up on an offer to buy the entire Tribune company. The interesting thing is that Broad and Burkle made an offer together. Until now, they had been assumed to be operating separately. That, to me, indicates a certain level of seriousness. No price was disclosed.

Might any other locals make an offer for the paper?

We know that David Geffen is actively sniffing around, trying to put together a deal. Geffen has talked about accepting a lower profit margin at the paper. The Tribune has insisted on raising the profit margin [above the current 20 percent].

One report about staff cuts said the newsroom may lose 50 to 75 positions. Hiller seems to be saying that might not happen.

Hiller tried to soothe the newsroom yesterday, saying there would be no more cuts this year. But the implication was that there would be cuts next year. But really, it's more than that. Hiller has made an announcement that he wants to reorient the paper away from its ambitions in foreign and national reporting and give it more of an emphasis of a local paper. The model he's got for that, we all assume, is the Chicago Tribune. It's not the high-achieving paper that the L.A. Times is. It doesn't have a lot of foreign bureaus or national bureaus. It's always seemed that's the model the Tribune Company wants. It didn't want the big, blue-chip newspaper like the L.A. Times when it bought it six years ago. That seems to be what this is about. They had a fundamental disagreement about the direction of the L.A. Times.

Circulation has dropped 25 percent since 2000, when Tribune bought the paper. In making it more local, what can readers expect?

It's hard to know. During the time the Tribune has owned the Times, they have ruthlessly reduced the amount of resources devoted to local coverage. They have eliminated entire editions and sections and have cut by hundreds the number of people devoted to what you might call hyperlocal coverage. The reason they did that was it's very expensive to generate local coverage. It's hard to see Tribune going back into that.

What do you know about the new editor, Jim O'Shea?

He's the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. He's kind of from the old school. You could argue that Baquet was not the guy to reinvent what the paper of the 21st century should look like. You'd say the same about O'Shea. He's a journalist's journalist. He's always covered news. He's a big supporter of investigative reporting. Whether he's going to have the creativity to invent a new L.A. Times isn't clear. Whether he'll be able to stand up the publisher is another thing. I think David Hiller will be the man calling the shots. The appointment is reassuring because O'Shea is such a solid journalist. But it's also a bit of an insult since the last two L.A. Times editors were major players in national journalism and O'Shea was passed over a few years ago for the No. 1 job at the Tribune.