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Baquet Begins - Web Exclusive Update

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.

He’s too old and too proud. Baquet is more pragmatic. And whatever’s happening with Tribune, he’s not feeling the need to take action or take a stand.” Famous for brilliantly playing office politics, Baquet immediately after the LAT upheaval worked the phones with the major media outlets to establish his street cred with staff and other journalists. So he wouldn’t look like a complete toady in contrast to Carroll, Baquet pissed and moaned about how he fought with his own publisher and the Chicago bosses during “marathon discussions” in order to win unspecified concessions about the future resources available to the paper.

Just look at the heroic way he’s described by his own paper today. Not even William Goldman, the screenwriter of All the President’s Men from the Woodstein book, could have scripted such detail and dialogue better.

“As recently as two weeks ago, Baquet threatened to leave the newspaper, according to several [Los Angeles] 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.” First word of the transition came from Kevin Roderick’s widely read LAObserved.com Web site, which is the town crier for local media. Shocked and baffled LAT staffers spent the next hour messaging and phoning and huddling in bathrooms and corners. Finally, at 11:45 a.m., the worker bees were told at a gathering in the newsroom.

(The news will not be covered by veteran LAT media critic David Shaw, who has inoperable brain cancer. According to friends, the Pulitzer-winning columnist tragically suffered a brain seizure on July 5 and remains hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai in a coma.) The announcement left more questions than it answered among LAT newspeople, especially about the degree to which Carroll jumped or was pushed by Chicago.

While Carroll even now has skirted that issue, saying he started thinking about his end game a year ago, Tribune Co. is known to cleverly put into contractual language what departing execs can, and can’t, spill. Clearly, Carroll was dejected over deeper budget cuts in the offing by the Tribune Co., as well as fed up with the uninterrupted nagging about finances and circulation. How demoralizing for him when, after winning five Pulitzers in 2004, the second-most ever for a single paper in one year, he saw the LAT bear the overwhelming brunt of Tribune Co.-mandated layoffs just two months later. On the other hand, the Chicago bosses had reason to keep riding Carroll after circulation posted big drops for the past two reporting periods — down 5.5 percent for daily and 6.3 percent for Sunday in September 2004, and then down 6.4 percent for daily and 7.9 percent for Sunday in March 2005. In the end, getting readers mattered more than getting Pulitzers.

Carroll’s descent and Baquet’s ascent was helped along by the new publisher, according to insiders. “He has a very heavy hand on the tiller,” one source told L.A. Weekly. “It’s widely known that he lit a fire under editorial recently by saying, ‘You guys have to think about your role in circulation.

We are selling a product, and the two are connected. We’ve got to make this a product that people want to buy.’ ” L.A. Weekly has learned that mandate triggered a recent retreat of senior editors to ponder just that topic.

But Johnson is no cereal killer, the nickname given Mark Willes, who, in the late ’90s, went from running the breakfast-food business to running the LAT into the ground prestige-wise. According to media people who’ve heard Johnson’s ideas about the paper, he has the usual bean-counting mentality of his ilk but also a solid grasp on what a newspaper should be. Believing that the LAT has to have a broad appeal beyond just news coverage, Johnson is a vocal advocate of the paper’s new and expanded features sections, which he sees as critical to the survival of the paper, as well as its Web site, where it was his idea to liberate Calendar from its unsuccessful stint as a subscription-only service.

In the immediate aftermath of Carroll’s exit, bets are being placed on how long Michael Kinsley, who’s been the editorial and opinion editor for 15 months, will last now that he reports directly to Johnson, and not to the LAT’s editor.

Yes, that very big news was snuck in under the radar “as part of the leadership transition,” the paper explained. Kinsley’s tenure so far has been marked primarily by self-serving publicity and controversy, all designed to focus attention on himself instead of on issues. Another problem, aside from the huge ones that he commutes from Seattle, or that he disassembled his sections into a snarkfest of lefty cronies and wacko neo-cons, is that his politics are out of step — not just with conservative subscribers who left the paper in droves after that Schwarzenegger sexual-harassment probe was published on the eve of the gubernatorial recall election, but also with progressive subscribers sickened by Kinsley’s old-school liberal penchant for placing witty banter ahead of serious argument.

Now Kinsley’s perch looks precarious. After all, Carroll was Kinsley’s hirer, protector and defender, and Kinsley’s previous employers, Slate and The New Republic, did not prepare him for a workplace where corporate meddling is the rule, not the exception.

Meanwhile, Carroll was one of newcomer Joel Stein’s biggest fans. Again, without that protection from on high, it remains to be seen whether the imbecilic columnist, king of conflict of interests with showbiz and much derided by readers, can also hang onto his gig.

Carroll, the white-haired veteran of the Baltimore Sun and the Lexington [KY] Herald-Leader, seems to have been universally liked and admired by LATers, as much for his congenial presence as his editorial leadership. “I would say most people, including myself, are sorry to see him go,” one writer told me today. “He actually knew my name, made a point of walking through the newsroom on a regular basis, and we’d chat about stuff when I’d run into him in the employee cafeteria. He was the kind of editor you could tell spent a lot of years as a reporter.” On the other hand, Carroll lost tremendous ground with readers, and the paper’s circulation penetration is now more miserable.

Like his former boss, Baquet — a Louisiana native who lives in Santa Monica with his family and won a Pulitzer while at the Chicago Tribune — is liked and admired both personally and professionally within the newsroom.

“I am a Dean Baquet fan for selfish reasons,” a writer tells me. “I’ve never had a managing editor at the LAT who gave a damn about what I do. He’s the only guy at the paper, if he left or resigned or got fired, that we would all be crushed to see go.” Said another scribbler: “He’s a remarkable person in that he seems to create almost no hard feelings and no enemies. He’s obligingly had lunch with everyone and listens attentively, so all of my experiences are unsettlingly positive. I say that because I’m nervous about anyone who’s so likeable.” Clearly it’s a coup for the LAT to have one of the most prominent African-American media members now leading its newsroom, especially since the paper has a shameful history of ignoring black and other minority issues. Dubbed Mr. Smooth for his usually cool and elegant demeanor, the onetime NYT national editor is also a fearsome competitor, especially when it comes to his former employer.

For instance, I reported a year ago that Baquet went ballistic after four superstar LAT journalists defected in one week to the NYT, and threw a temper tantrum when entertainment-industry editor-writer Michael Cieply was even considering a job offer from there. After all, Baquet himself had organized a “Go West” migration of a handful of prominent reporters and editors from the NYT to the LAT starting in 2000. According to the Business section buzz, Baquet was threatening to throw Cieply out of the building or, at the very least, insist Cieply go home pronto until he’d decided what to do. Finally, when Cieply decided to take the NYT job, it was gently suggested to him that he pack up his office over the Fourth of July weekend when Baquet wouldn’t be around.

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