By: Joe Strupp
Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet on Thursday urged newspaper editors to do more in the battle against budget cuts and not blindly accept business-side pronouncements that resources need to be reduced in this “irrational era of cost-cutting.”
“It is the job of editors of newspapers to put up a little bit more of a fight than we have put up in the past,” Baquet said in a speech before the Associated Press Managing Editors here. “Don’t be shy about making the public service argument.”
Just weeks after his public battle with Tribune Co. over potential cutbacks, which ended with the forced resignation of former publisher Jeff Johnson and speculation that Baquet himself might be leaving, the veteran editor told editors here that they, too, must not give in to demands for cutbacks.
Baquet said he had thought about resigning, but “the paper came first and I thought the best way to protect the paper was to stay.” He also expected to remain as editor for several years, “hopefully 15 years, when I can retire at 65.”
He explained, “This is a giant moment in the life of newspapers. We all understand the business model is changing and we have to do some cutting.” But, he warned, “I don’t understand it too much. … I find [editors] all too willing to buy the arguments for cuts,” he stated, adding, “We need to be a feistier bunch.”
He pointed to the fact that his paper “is one of only three major newspapers to cover the war in Iraq day-in and day-out,” a fraction of what occurred during the Vietnam War.
Editor of the Times since August 2005, Baquet said concerns about the paper’s future began to mount last summer, well before Johnson was pushed out after he and Baquet publicly stated their opposition to potential reductions. “I felt my newsroom freezing up as fall came,” Baquet told the hundreds of attendees. “Getting my paper through this is my primary concern.”
Baquet, who is a New Orleans native with strong ties to the city, said he was glad to come to town to see family and friends, then joked that he also came to the conference hoping “you might have a jobs board.” After the audience laughed, he added, “you think I’m kidding.”
But, stressing the seriousness of the situation, Baquet explained that he had to stand up to the budget reduction threat because, after three previous rounds of staff cuts since his arrival as a deputy editor five years ago, “I didn’t believe I could pull off my public service mission with a greatly reduced staff. I felt compelled to say ‘no.'”
Baquet said his public stance against cuts drew hundreds of e-mails from around the country by supporters, something that helped him stick with the position against cutting. Such notes ranged from The New York Times to the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal. “I even got one from a Wall Street analyst who said it was about time newspapers started pushing back a little bit,” Baquet said.
He also praised Johnson, saying “he believed that continued layoffs would hurt us as a business. It would kill our ability to put more talent on our Web site and create new sections.”
The editor said the most influential reactions came from his own staff, which offered e-mail support, but also requests to be involved in the paper’s future. “They said they appreciated the fight, but they felt left out,” Baquet revealed. “If passionate journalists have ideas, editors should harness the energy, say yes, and get out of the way.”
He added that “newsrooms are angry.” But he also pointed out that such threats to the industry are not new. “Every generation, a new threat comes along to newspapers,” he said. “Confronted by the deep fear that the next generation will turn away from us.”
Baquet cited the New York Times of the 1960s and ’70s, which expanded in to new sections, and later its stronger national coverage, to counter growing competition. “A new, highly profitable, even better paper, was born,” he said.
Asked about the paper’s future under Tribune Company, Baquet said he believed the company wanted to “hold on to it,” but said “nothing would surprise me.” He also said Tribune and the paper’s previous owners, TimesMirror, did not work together enough after the 2000 sale was completed for a smoother transition before cuts and reorganization.
“I don’t think they ever rolled up their sleeves and figured it out,” Baquet told the audience, noting that one of the mistakes such companies make is to cut costs right away: “That is irresistible to all sides of business, that is a mistake.” He urged the McClatchy Company, which recently took over Knight Ridder, to avoid such a move by letting their leaderships “sit in a room for about a month and understand each other’s cultures.”
Baquet also urged newspapers to do a better job of embracing the Web and improving diversity. “We are still sort of stuck where we have been for the last decade,” he said of the diversity situation.
When asked if his or any paper would do better under a local owner or a corporate chain, Baquet said, “history is filled with awful local owners and awful corporate owners who would do terrible things to a paper.”