By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IT’S A LOT LIKE those grainy tokusatsu kaiju, sci-fi horror films where the gigantic mutant dinosaurs — or, in this case, “newsosaurs” — spend most of their screen time beating the crap out of each other when what they really should be doing is fighting those outside forces that threaten their very survival. So it was with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment that I watched The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times re-engage each other the past week in a battle for personnel within the incredibly shrinking world of print media. On Tuesday, the NYT made a big freaking deal about what was a foregone conclusion: bringing back fired LAT editor Dean Baquet, this time as Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor. It followed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s very public boast about how anyone at the LAT was his for the taking. (“[The Washington Post will] probably go hire all the good people from the L.A. Times .?.?. All the good people who are left after we’ve finished our own hiring.”) In reaction, new LAT editor Jim O’Shea angrily told me Tuesday he’s fed up with Keller.
“Somebody sitting in New York isn’t a god of journalism. I personally don’t take shots at their paper. I don’t feel that enhances my stature as an editor. And so, if someone feels that’s how they have to play big, then that’s their business,” said O’Shea. “But it’s posturing. He thinks I’m going to let them pick me off? I’m telling you right now I’m going to fight hard to keep everyone I’ve got. We’re just as good as the NYT. Believe me, working there isn’t a walk in the park, either.”
Yet how ironic that the future of both papers is similarly precarious now that Wall Street is pressuring their parent companies over lousy financial performances. It’s the same sick story on both coasts: Declines in advertising and increased online competition have slashed earnings at both media corporations. The LAT’s Tribune Co. put itself up for bid, but that auction concluded unsatisfactorily Wednesday. Neither the Burkle/Broad nor the Chandler family offers for the Big Media company were deemed “an appropriate premium” above the current share value, insiders tell me, so a management-led solution is now in progress. And even though The New York Times Co. is in a state of denial because it’s protected by family ownership, the corporation has posted five straight years of slumping stock culminating in a reported $648 million loss for the fourth quarter of 2006 as it absorbed an $814.4 million write-down on its New England colonies, in particular the Boston Globe, which is shutting its foreign bureaus (something the Tribune Co. would love the LAT to do). Which is why Keller’s show of Baquet-induced bravado this week looked all the more ridiculous when he claimed the NYT is “perhaps the last great American news organization that is not in retreat.”
“For all their sense of superiority, The New York Times Company’s problems with the Boston Globe are not unlike Tribune’s problems with the L.A. Times,” O’Shea retorted.“The only difference is that we still have the ownership situation uncertain. Until that’s clarified, I don’t know what the future holds. I should add, for the paper or for me.”
Usually, the naming of a new Los Angeles Times editor is a much-ballyhooed event during which a lot of ink is spilled on hosannas from journalists far and wide. But O’Shea’s appointment not only didn’t have any accompanying fanfare, it was tantamount to a funeral, since it spelled the death of the 15-month-old anti-cutbacks rebellion led by Baquet and his cadre of sycophants. From the start, O’Shea was dismissed as a 63-year-old short-timer shuffling his way into retirement, even more so because he came in with only a two-year contract to stay in Los Angeles. (His wife of 33 years, a museum spinmeister, didn’t even move west.)
Considered a newspaperman’s newspaperman (isn’t every managing editor?) with a background in foreign, national, business and investigative news, he was seen as a Tribune lackey, there to carry out every parent company order to the letter. Ironically, O’Shea at first tried to broker a peace between Baquet and publisher David Hiller, who came out here from Chicago gunning to fire Baquet. O’Shea urged both men to work together for at least a few weeks. It was impossible. So O’Shea took over reluctantly, moving from a downtown hotel (“It was kinda depressing”) to a month-to-month furnished rental in Pasadena. Now the quintessential Chicagoan, in both style and substance (there’s nothing slick or manicured about this guy, from his ill-fitting suit to his crooked teeth), is rapidly becoming another Los Angeles cliché.
He now has leased a Manhattan Beach condo and a Lexus. This editor who before Christmas knew only that Westwood was near UCLA has been “out to the Valley and other areas. I rode around with the police one night into South-Central and Rampart. I’ve been taking very long bike rides, which is a great way to see things. I’ve even found myself sitting here and debating, ‘Should I go to Chicago this weekend?’ Because when I look at the ocean out there, I think, ‘What’s the point of going somewhere else?’