By: Joe Strupp
Although Dean Baquet put off for several months any serious talks with The New York Times about returning to the paper after he was fired as editor of the Los Angeles Times, he says rejoining the daily where he spent nearly a decade of his career is the best move he could have made.
“The New York Times was not a second choice,” Baquet, 50, said this morning as he packed for a return flight to Los Angeles, a day after it was announced he would become the new Times Washington bureau chief. “It was nice to have this great paper really want me.”
Soon after his departure from the Los Angeles Times in early November, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller contacted Baquet and said he would be interested in having him return to the paper where he served in several roles from 1990 to 2000, including as national editor. Around the same time, Baquet had what he termed “casual discussions” with Los Angeles area billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle who were among those bidding to purchase parts of The Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times.
“There wasn’t extensive conversations or contact with them,” Baquet said about the Los Angeles investors. “I just had casual conversations with them. There is a myth that there was some constant discussion with them.” He added that, “The New York Times made it clear that the door was open, quite clear that if there was a possibility of my coming back, it was open.”
Baquet stressed that it was not a matter of pitting the New York Times against the Los Angeles investors. But he made clear that he did not want to make a decision until it was known what might be happening in Los Angeles. “I thought it was a possibility,” he said about a return to the Los Angeles Times under new owners. “I can’t say I thought it was a strong possibility. I had decided to wait a while, I thought I would wait to see what happened.”
Last week, when it became clear that the Tribune Company was not planning to accept a bid any time soon, Baquet contacted Keller. “The L.A. Times offer became less likely and the New York Times became more attractive,” Baquet recalls. “I called Bill and said maybe it was time for us to have a serious conversation,” Baquet recalled. He flew to New York on Sunday and met Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson for lunch at Keller’s Manhattan apartment on Monday.
“That was the first serious conversation,” he said. “They had never made an offer before and that was appropriate. I did not want to get any offers until I was sure.” He said Keller and Abramson brought up the idea of the Washington bureau. “They said, ‘Washington’ and I think they know me well enough to know that that was something I would find attractive,” he said. “It was clear to me that they were guys I would want to work with again.”
During Baquet’s time as national editor, he said he worked closely with Abramson when she was deputy Washington bureau chief and with Keller when he was managing editor. Although he has never been assigned to the Washington bureau, Baquet said he worked out of that office on several occasions while researching stories.
Baquet says he and Keller and Abramson never discussed either of them becoming successors to Keller, a subject that has drawn wide speculation since Baquet’s return was announced. Many have pointed out that Baquet now becomes one of several strong candidates to replace Keller down the road, along with Abramson. “We never talked about that, I don’t even think about it, although people don’t want to believe that” Baquet said. “Jill is one of the people who heavily recruited me to the paper and one of the people I respect most.”
As for the Washington bureau, which has been headed by Philip Taubman for the past three and half years, Baquet would not say what he might change about the operation, if anything. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “I want to get to know the bureau, spend time in Washington and then decide what changes to make then.”
He praised the work of Taubman, who will leave to become an associate editor and do investigative reporting related to national security issues. “I am not inheriting a bureau that needs fixing. I haven’t thought through any changes,” Baquet said. “I am excited about it because it lets me do what I want to do, which is work with reporters.”
Related E&P story: ‘NY Times’ D.C. Staffers Welcome Baquet — But Will He Succeed Keller?