There was never any doubt that Dean Baquet would lead the Los Angeles Times. The only question was the timing, and today that was answered when budget-cut-weary editor John Carroll moved out of, and the ambitious managing editor will move into, the third-floor Spring Street power office. L.A. Weekly has learned that a mastermind of the changeover was new publisher Jeff Johnson, who himself had replaced John Puerner just four months ago. With the announcement a day old, there is no doubt either that the paper Baquet is about to lead will be a shell of its former glory, thanks to parent Tribune Co.
Carroll denied his own newspaper’s Web site report that he was retiring — telling Editor and Publisher he’s taking an “open-ended vacation” and will then “find something else” in journalism — and dissed the paper’s parent company for all the slashes in resources and budgets mandated in recent years that eliminated more than 60 editorial positions last year alone. For some time now, his friends atop the media world had been hearing his complaints about Tribune Co. wanting to dismantle the improvements he’d made, both editorial and morale, and tsk-tsked back about how it was a national tragedy. Actually, the real tragedy here is local: the LAT now does an even crappier job covering Los Angeles than ever, and that may be the root of its readership problems.
While Carroll had his eye mainly on Pulitzer Prizes, he overlooked the needs and desires of readers wanting to know what was really going on in their own backyard. This is the guy, after all, who mutated and mutilated the Metro section into “California.” Already, insiders tell L.A. Weekly, Baquet will refocus attention here at home as much as hither and yon.
Asked to comment on my reporting and analysis of the LAT upheaval, the newspaper's spokesperson Martha Goldstein told me Wednesday evening, “I really don't see a reason to comment on these characterizations.” We know now that Carroll and Baquet honed a strategy to deal with the Chicago louts by threatening a PR nightmare: The pair would quit together as a way of showing their opposition to Tribune’s draconian measures. Obviously, the bosses decided that Carroll was expendable. But just the specter of Baquet’s putting out “situation wanted” feelers to media rivals created panic at Tribune Co.
which had made it clear to the 48-year-old African-American from the start that they were grooming him not just for the LAT’s top gig but also an eventual mogul’s job at the parent company’s Big Media level.
That Baquet’s driving and defining ambition is allowing him now to come to terms with the inevitable — lean and hungry days ahead for the LAT newsroom and newshole — speaks volumes about both his well-developed ego and his ultimate goal. After the Howell Raines purging, it was Baquet who rebuffed a personal overture from The New York Times’ scion “Pinch” Sulzberger to return to his former employer as managing editor, with the understanding that he’d eventually rise to top editor, with this oh-so-cutting observation: that for him to even consider coming back, he should be offered the executive editorship now instead of later. But was this misplaced pride, or a psychic blackout? While clearly becoming No. 1 at a prestigious paper like the LAT is what he coveted, Baquet has his work cut out for him. He inherits a once stalwart institution now beset with problems: nose-diving circulation, spotty penetration, weak advertising, unwanted budget cutbacks ordered by parent Tribune Co., increasing portents that the newspaper could be sold sooner rather than later because its business plan is hopelessly doomed. None of those obstacles would have faced him had he gone to the NYT. Even the LAT’s own Web site announcement of Baquet’s takeover led with bad news: how Carroll had “struggled with circulation” throughout his five-year tenure at the top. Pointedly, no mention was made of the $20-million-plus fiasco that took place also under Carroll’s watch: General Motors’ April decision to pull all advertising because of a cranky article by Pulitzer Prize-winning car columnist Dan Neil. Add a recent change of publishers, insider bits and pieces about new guy Johnson starting to put his stamp on the paper with the Chicago bosses all the while performing a “look to the future” during which there was going to be big decisions made — both good and bad — for the LAT, and you don’t need a calculator to determine it was a zero-sum game for Carroll.
He had no choice but to cut his losses despite those shiny new 13 Pulitzers he won for the paper.
One insider summed it up: “John Carroll doesn’t want to kiss anyone’s ass anymore.