News

L.A. Times editor resigns under pressure

Michael Oneal
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - Another big jolt shook Tribune Co. on Tuesday when Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet stepped down under pressure after publicly pushing back against demands that he cut more jobs at the struggling paper.

He will be replaced by James O'Shea, the managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, who has the difficult job of walking into a hostile newsroom with marching orders to turn around the paper's readership after years of declines.

Baquet's departure follows by a month the ouster of former Los Angeles Times publisher Jeffrey Johnson, who also balked at costs cuts ordered up by corporate headquarters. Both the Times and Chicago Tribune are owned by Chicago-based media conglomerate Tribune Co.

Baquet, 50, said at the time that he hoped to work out a compromise with Johnson's replacement, David Hiller, the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune. But after disagreeing over both how to cut costs and where to deploy limited resources, Hiller said the two couldn't come to a mutually acceptable agreement.

"Just remember, it's a great paper and it will stay that way," Baquet told a somber group of editors and reporters who gathered in his office, according to a story on the Los Angeles Times Web site.

In an emotional meeting with editors, O'Shea said, "The reason I did this against the advice of just about everyone is that I think I can help."

O'Shea, 63, rose through a variety of reporting and editing positions, including foreign and national editor posts, during a 27-year career at the Tribune. He takes over from Baquet at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil in the newspaper industry generally and at the Los Angeles Times in particular.

With the Internet stealing young readers and changing the way companies advertise, revenue and circulation have been dropping at big daily newspapers across the nation. The Times has watched its advertising revenue drop alarmingly in recent years.

This seismic shift is a large reason Tribune Co. was put into play earlier this year by its largest shareholder, California's Chandler family. The company is currently entertaining bids for its assets from private equity companies and other interested parties. Los Angeles billionaires Eli Broad, Ron Burkel and David Geffen have each contacted Tribune individually about buying the Times.

In a memo to Los Angeles Times employees on Monday, Hiller set the stage for Baquet's departure by saying that turning around the paper "will require moving resources from print to online, and other growth areas. It also means continuing to reduce costs in the core print business, across every area of the company, and doing so thoughtfully and strategically."

He added that, "We cannot allow ourselves to feel victimized by change or to be in denial of what needs to be done to move us ahead." And in another note Tuesday announcing Baquet's departure, he said: "the last thing we can stand is confusion on our mission and objectives. It's going to be hard enough as it is."

Asked in an interview Tuesday whether he would have to make the job cuts Baquet refused to make, O'Shea said: "I don't know. I'm going to try everything I can to avoid that. But the reality is the business model is shifting and nobody knows where it's going. So we've just got to figure that out."

O'Shea's first task will be to calm down a newsroom that has been up in arms ever since Tribune Co. executives showed Johnson the door. Baquet, the Pulitzer Prize winner and former Chicago Tribune reporter, who replaced former Times editor John Carroll after Carroll resigned his post last year, has always been extremely popular among his staff. But in the wake of Baquet's and Johnson's decision to push back against Chicago, Baquet has been lionized.

O'Shea said he is well aware what he's up against.

"I understand how they feel" he said, "Were I in their shoes, I'd feel the same way. There's not an easy way to go into a hostile newsroom and win everybody over. There will be people I'll never win over."

What O'Shea will do, however, is try to refocus the newsroom's attention on to the critical issue of recapturing readers. What newspapers must do is solve the puzzle of getting newsprint and online editions to work together to attract both readers and advertisers, he said. "You have to understand the issue of declining readership and figure out how to turn it around," he said. "That's the challenge. If you turn that around it makes the rest a lot easier."

Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski said O'Shea was well qualified for the task ahead. "His journalistic credentials are impeccable. ... He's always been a first-rate reporter and editor," she said. "Jim's also a tough guy."

Johnson and Baquet's argument has been that the Times is still highly profitable - it is expected to generate north of $240 million in cash flow this year. They believed that by sacrificing margins in the short term, the Times could build up its Internet presence and local reporting while retaining its prowess in national and international reporting. They agreed that the Times needed to reinvent itself to compete in a digital world. But they didn't want to sacrifice what they were doing in the print newsroom to get there.

Given the pressure Tribune Chairman and CEO Dennis FitzSimons is under from Wall Street, however, sacrificing margins isn't an option. Investors have shown little patience for slipping revenues and profitability. When one influential Tribune investor heard of Baquet's dismissal, he said, "I'm very pleased."

Hiller said he hasn't yet determined proper staffing levels. But his memo indicates he plans to move the Times into higher-growth areas by shifting existing resources. In his Monday memo, he said that the Los Angeles Times shouldn't emulate the New York Times' national ambitions because it has cost the paper readership in its local market. The Los Angeles Times should retain much of its national and international newsgathering ability, Hiller wrote, but it should also "focus relentlessly on growing local audience."

Meanwhile, he plans to aggressively expand the paper's Internet offering while targeting Hispanic readers, younger readers and young couples.

O'Shea said his agreement with Hiller is that he will have time to learn what the paper needs to do and what resources that will take.

"Journalists are the smartest people I know," O'Shea said. "If we put our minds to it we can figure it out. But we have to put our minds to it."

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