How Baquet Brothers Survived Setbacks in L.A. and NOLA

By: Joe Strupp

The ballroom crowd applauded furiously as Dean Baquet stepped back from the podium, soaking up the response he’d received following one of the most important newspaper industry speeches of the year in late October. He didn’t know at the time that it would also hold fateful consequences for his own career.

Baquet, the 50-year-old editor of the Los Angeles Times, had just finished telling more than 300 members of the Associated Press Managing Editors that they needed to fight back against budget cuts and staff reductions, or watch their newspapers fail their journalistic mission. For Baquet, this moment was highly charged on both a professional and a deeply personal level. Not only did it come in the midst of a public standoff with corporate honchos at Tribune Co. (his former boss, Jeffrey Johnson, had just gotten the axe as publisher), but the speech had been delivered in his hometown of New Orleans, where APME held its annual convention despite — or perhaps because of — the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

“It is the job of an editor of a newspaper to put up a little bit more of a fight than we have put up in the past,” Baquet told the newsroom leaders, reaffirming his stance that severe staff cutbacks could not be tolerated. “Your newsroom wants you to lead them.”

No one likely applauded louder than one fellow editor seated at a front-row table just a few feet away from the podium during that lunchtime address at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel. Terry Baquet, Dean’s younger brother and a top editor at the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, who knows better than anyone the road his sibling had taken to this spot, beamed with pride.

After the speech, Dean Baquet told E&P that he hoped to work 15 more years at the Times and then retire. But just five days days later, on Halloween, the ground shifted beneath the editor’s feet: Following a meeting with new publisher David Hiller, Baquet found out he was to be ousted in 10 days. The plan was to get through the pending elections and announce his departure on Nov. 9. But as word spread through the Los Angeles newsroom, the bad news leaked out early. On Nov. 7, in what some staffers dubbed “The Election Day Massacre,” Baquet was ousted as editor of the Times, to be succeeded by James O’Shea, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. Not coincidentally, Hiller had recently arrived from the Tribune himself.

Of course, conflict between Baquet and the home office dated back more than a year, and many thought he should have left the paper with former Times editor John S. Carroll in a 2005 staff cutback dispute — or, more recently, with fired publisher Johnson. Later, it became clear that Baquet’s hard-hitting comments in New Orleans also played a role. The day Baquet resigned, Hiller told The New York Times (referring to that speech), “I did not think it was helpful to Dean and me in working through things. My issue was what it said about whether we saw eye to eye on how we lead this great newspaper forward.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted Baquet referring to the “tragic, bad marriage” between Tribune and the Times. After losing his job, Baquet at least drew wide praise and support from staffers and other editors in the industry. “I have been here 28 years and this is the single worst moment in that time,” said Times staff writer Henry Weinstein. John Carroll, now with Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, called Dean’s firing “one more step toward reducing the Los Angeles Times to mediocrity,” while legendary former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Eugene Roberts blasted Tribune for “living quarter to quarter.”

But the key comrade in his corner, as always, was his brother, Terry Baquet — who with the help of Dean had overcome his own setbacks and struggles over the past year in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The hammer falls

“When I first heard about it, it kicked me in the gut,” Terry Baquet recalls about the day he learned from Dean that he was losing his job. “When it happened, it was like a sick parent who is ill, and then dies. You’re not surprised, but you still don’t expect it.”

Terry, six years younger than Dean and the baby among five brothers, got word of the pending departure on Oct. 31. Driving through New Orleans after dropping off his brother, Rudy, Terry’s cell phone rang with the bad news. “I pulled up in front of my house, sat in my car, and we talked about it,” he says of the morning conversation. “I didn’t want it to happen, I felt awful for him. I wanted the earth to move so he could stay in Los Angeles.”

Dean’s only request to his brother: “Keep it discreet.”

“He was one of the first people I called,” says Dean, who did not inform his other brothers or his elderly mother at the time. “He was sad. It wasn’t unexpected, because he and I had been talking about it.”

Just days earlier, the brothers had been spending time together in New Orleans following Dean’s speech, helping their 85-year-old mother, enjoying some southern cooking at their brother Wayne’s restaurant, and smoking cigars on Terry’s front porch. Still, the uncertain future of Dean’s employment remained high on their agenda.

Dean says his brother helped most by listening to him after the decision was made, and easing the impact. “It helped me figure things out because he is a smart guy,” Dean says of his brother. “He understands newspapers, and he understands why this was an important issue for me.”

For the next week between Halloween and Election Day, Terry kept the information close, telling only his wife, Phyllis, and having occasional chats with Dean about how things were progressing. He says that Dean felt at least somewhat “relieved.” Terry, who works nights as the Times-Picayune’s Page One editor, had to keep some phone conversations with Dean down to a whisper so others in the newsroom couldn’t hear.

Dean, in fact, had told a few of his top editors, as well as close friend Jim Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune and a former colleague at that paper. Mostly, however, he focused on his job at hand and the pending election: “I thought I’d be editor of the paper for another week and I chose to handle it. I was as much a pain in the butt [to the staff] as I always am … I didn’t start to think about the future,” he recalls. “I would worry about the future when I stopped being editor.”

But things took an unexpected turn on Election Day, as word of Dean’s firing broke on the Web. He put out an e-mail to staff confirming the news, and added that they could best help him by doing “a hell of a job on the election tonight.”

Back in New Orleans, Terry says he called his mother and brothers, but did not speak to Dean until the next day. “I was working on my own election stuff and I was occupied,” he says of that night. “But he was definitely on my mind.”

Three days later, when Dean packed up his office and said goodbye to his staff, Terry had a friend at the Times patch him through by speakerphone so he could hear his brother’s farewell to the troops.

“It was nice feeling a part of it, hearing it,” Terry says. Naturally, he declares that Tribune erred in its decision to oust his brother. “I think Dean is a great editor and they let probably one of the best ones out there get away,” Terry says. “And that is a mistake. He is not out because he is a bad editor, but because he is a good editor.”

As he puts his years at the Times behind him and looks ahead, Dean is glad he stood his ground at APME. “I don’t have any regrets about the speech,” he says, adding that he doesn’t believe it was the reason for his firing. “I didn’t connect the two events in any way.” He adds that the timing of his speech, which had been scheduled months before, made it almost impossible to avoid the budget cuts issue that was permeating his newsroom.

“It would have been bizarre for me to get up in front of that group and talk about anything else,” he says. “I think it was important for editors to talk about this stuff. I think my stance and position at the Times has provoked a real discussion about the state of cuts.”

Lean on me

Since Dean’s first days as a reporter for the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item some 30 years ago, Terry has watched his older brother dive deeply into reporting. He credits Dean with giving him the bug that eventually lured him into the business, and with helping him take his own career as far as possible with a mix of drive and curiosity. “Dean always said it was a noble profession,” Terry recalls about the early days of his career. “He had insights on things that I had never gotten before.”

But during the past year, both men have been tested — both journalistically and personally — more than ever before. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it devastated their extended family in New Orleans, including brothers Wayne and Rudy, as well as their mother, Myrtle. Eventually, everyone except Terry relocated to a relative’s home in Georgia, while he joined other Times-Picayune staffers in Baton Rouge for several weeks.

Back in Los Angeles, having taken over as Times editor just weeks earlier, Dean had to juggle calls and check-ins with his family, all the while directing his own newspaper’s coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath. After several months, however, Dean would face yet another challenge as Tribune began hinting of further newsroom cutbacks to stem a growing revenue slide. That led to the now-famous Sept. 14, 2006, Times article in which both Baquet and Johnson publicly denounced any reductions — which eventually forced Johnson’s resignation and spurred careful negotiations to keep Dean on the job.

Dean and Terry both say that the travails of the past year — both in New Orleans and in Los Angeles — required a lot of phone time and familial support. “We talked all the time during the storm,” says Dean. “There were a couple of nerve-wracking moments when I couldn’t get through. I just wanted to hear [Terry’s] voice.”

Terry agrees, adding that during the recent upheavals at the Times, he sought to help Dean work through the issues. “He is a hero in the business right now,” Terry remarks, but he is quick to note his brother’s heroism for the family as well. During the weeks that he had to work out of the Times-Picayune’s makeshift office in Baton Rouge while his wife and two children were stuck in Georgia, Terry says Dean was often the only person to whom he could vent. “I would sit out on the front steps and talk to him, I would break down to Dean,” Terry recalls about the first few weeks after Katrina when he was living out of a dormitory at Louisiana State University and keeping in contact by cell phone. “There were instances when it was hard, I really missed my family. Dean offered to do anything he could.”

Terry, whose family did not move back to New Orleans until this summer, recalls one instance in which he was kicked out of the dorms after LSU officials needed the space for incoming students weeks following the hurricane. Sitting outside the housing unit, with his bags of clothes around him, Terry called Dean to admit that he had no place to stay. “I told him I thought I’d have to sleep in my car that night,” Terry recalls. “He offered to do anything he possibly could do. We’ve always been pretty close, but it could have brought us closer.” Dean concurs, saying, “I call him when I am in turmoil, or when need advice.”

Older brother Wayne describes his relationship with Dean and Terry as more paternal, given their age differences. He says growing up, and still today, his younger siblings give him as much respect as a father might receive. “It was like two generations, a mentoring system,” he says about his and his brother Eddie’s oversight. “We kind of helped raise them.” But he credits both his younger brothers with taking on family responsibilities in recent years as much as anyone, noting Dean’s effort to furnish their mother’s new apartment and Terry’s constant attention to her daily needs as age and arthritis increase.

A history of serving

While the Baquet name has gained prominence in the newspaper industry in recent years, those in New Orleans familiar with the family know it best by its restaurant legacy.

Before the future editors ever set foot into a newsroom, Dean and Terry were raised on life behind the grill, in the kitchen, and all too often at the handle of a mop. The youngest of five brothers, their first taste of work came in the back room of Eddie’s Restaurant, a now-defunct bar and grill that their father, Eddie Baquet, ran for several years south of the city’s Lakeview district. A postal carrier, their father had sold the family’s house and bought the eatery while Dean and Terry were still young, moving the entire family into the back rooms.

“The back of the restaurant was a challenging experience,” Terry recalls, noting that all five brothers had to share a bed at one point. “I was the little brother who always wanted to hang around with him and he wanted to push me aside, but he couldn’t push me too far because I was in the bed with him.” He recalls the restaurant being robbed several times when the family did not live there, and their father in a shootout on one occasion. “It was an area you had to prove yourself in if you wanted to open a business,” Terry says of the neighborhood.

Today, the Baquet family restaurant is Li’l Dizzy’s, a true creole cookery in the city’s historically black Treme section. Wayne, the second-oldest brother, runs the corner breakfast-and-lunch spot, which has become a favorite of local politicians and residents. Brother Rudy helps out on occasion. (Their oldest brother, Eddie Jr., died in 1994 of heart and emphysema-related problems.)

“CNN was in here yesterday interviewing the mayor,” Wayne boasts during breakfast at the restaurant, where he and Terry talked family over omelettes and grits. “This is my 12th restaurant — nine of them have been reasonably successful.” Forced to close Li’l Dizzy’s for five months after the hurricane flooded it with two feet of water, Wayne says he grew up hating the restaurant business “until I found out how to make money.” Dean also acknowledges a dislike for the food industry, which he says has not changed. “It never much moved me,” he admits. “I never thought about going into it and my father wanted me to go to college.”

The brothers credit their father with preaching brotherly help, hard work, and the importance of getting along, all of which helped them remain close for the past few decades. “He could not stand brothers not respecting each other,” Wayne declares, gesturing to a giant portrait of their father on the eatery’s brick wall. It’s the largest of numerous images decorating the restaurant, signed photos of Harvey Keitel, Bill Cosby, and Dionne Warwick among them. Above the tables and chairs are framed photos and news clippings of Charles and Achille Baquet, the brothers’ great uncles (who were noted local jazz musicians), along with Wayne’s two grandchildren.

The brothers each attended New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School, an all-boys campus whose alumni include last season’s NBA Coach of the Year Avery Johnson of the Dallas Mavericks and former New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy. Terry says each brother took turns in restaurant-related work while living out of Eddie’s back rooms. “One of Dean’s chores was cleaning up and mopping the floor,” Terry recalls between bites. “And it eventually became a chore of mine.”

Wayne, who at 59 is nearly a decade older than Dean, contends that he urged his brother early on not to follow in the family business. “He dropped some bread pudding one day and I told him to do something with his mind,” Wayne laughs, then turns serious. “I always told him to go to college and get a white-collar job. I told him he was going to go a different way, but not to forget his roots.” Dean agrees, saying “everybody expected me to do something other than the restaurant business — it wasn’t the road I was going to take.”

The ‘accidental’ journalist

Dean eventually headed to Columbia University, majoring in English literature as an undergraduate. He got his first taste of news during summer stints at the States-Item after his sophomore and junior years. “Journalism was just an accident,” he recalls. “It just happened and I fell in love with it.” He dropped out of college in 1978 to join the paper full time, then joined the Times-Picayune when the dailies merged in the early 1980s. In all, he spent more than six years at the two newspapers. Dean met his wife, Dylan Landis, at the Times-Picayune 25 years ago, and became friends with another young reporter named Jim Amoss (who today serves as the paper’s editor).

“Dean was green as grass, but obviously a natural,” Amoss, interviewed in his third-floor newsroom, says today about their early years together, from 1978 to 1982. “From the beginning, he was this font of journalistic ideas. You couldn’t drive through the city without Dean framing possible news angles.” At one point, Dean and Amoss comprised the entire States-Item and later Times-Picayune investigative units, digging into any kind of corruption they could find. Amoss says, “His persistence was one of his great hallmarks.”

Citing as an example a three-part series the duo did on former New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, Amoss remembers Dean befriending Marcello’s secretary. “Dean had her wrapped around his little finger,” he says. “We would park outside his office for hours so we could follow his comings and goings.”

Another telling incident occurred when they were investigating corruption in a police sting operation aimed at stopping prostitution in the French Quarter. “You had all of these cops taking kickbacks and in some cases engaging in sex with prostitutes,” Amoss recalls. At one point, the duo received a tip from a bar owner that a police officer had fired shots into his bar, but had no evidence. Amoss says he and Dean went to the bar and dismantled parts of the wall to find the bullet and match it with those used by police. “Dean would not give up looking for that bullet.”

Terry, who started college several years after Dean at the Hampton Institution (now Hampton University) in Virginia, became drawn into the news world via Dean’s circle. “His friends were all reporters, and I hung out with people who were in the business with him,” Terry recalls. He also saw his older brother’s respect and drive for news, citing as an example a story on New Orleans housing discrimination Dean had cultivated. “There were black folks who would go to rent an apartment and they would tell them it was not available, but it was available to white folks,” Terry explains. “That is the stuff he covered that interested me.”

Dean agrees he likely had some influence on Terry through the stories he did and the people he knew. “It had to at least let him know it was fun,” Dean says. “I think it introduced him to the notion of being a journalist. I think he saw that, possibly, they were good people.”

But by the time young Terry got his first newspaper job, as a Times-Picayune copy editor in 1988, older brother Dean was gone, having jumped in 1984 to the Chicago Tribune. It was in the Windy City where he earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for investigative reporting on Chicago municipal corruption. Among his co-writers on those stories was Ann Marie Lipinski, now the Tribune’s editor. The New York Times came calling in 1990 and then the Los Angeles Times, where former editor Carroll appointed him managing editor in 2000. “He made up for a lot of my shortcomings,” says Carroll. “He could juggle a lot of balls at one time.”

Going home not so easy

Terry, meanwhile, stayed in New Orleans, rising up through the Times-Picayune ranks to become assistant Sunday editor, Sunday editor, news editor and, since 1999, Page One editor. “He has wonderful instinctive news judgment,” Amoss says of Terry, who was among those who shared in the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize for public service earlier this year for its hurricane coverage. “He knows New Orleans like the back of his hand, he has a natural instinct for how to play a story.”

Married to his wife, Phyllis, for 17 years, Terry is the father of a 16-year-old son, Miles (who edits the St. Augustine school paper), and a 10-year-old daughter, Story. After living apart from them for nearly a year, Terry makes taking them to school a mandatory daily event.

“That means a lot to me,” he says during a drive through the French Quarter, still recalling how the storm damaged his Seventh Ward house. “It got nailed. We had two feet of water in it, it was looted and much of our stuff was stolen. They ransacked the hell out of it.”

Terry and his family could not move back into their home until June, while his mother’s house, their childhood home for many years, was all but destroyed — forcing her to take a new apartment in May. “We never think they are going to hit us because they rarely do,” Terry says about hurricanes as he turns the corner from Bourbon Street on to Esplanade, heading toward Li’l Dizzy’s. “But I am not leaving New Orleans. This is the spot for me.”

Dean, on the other hand, says he didn’t want to return to the city after Katrina, fearing the destruction was too much to take. “The journalist in me wanted to see, but the Orleanean in me did not,” he recalls about his initial feelings. “Probably every home I ever lived in was destroyed.” Eventually Dean went back, but not until last summer when he helped his mother move into her new home. “It was amazing how devastated it was,” says Dean, who stayed with Amoss during that visit. “It was pretty rough, my mother’s house was in pretty awful shape.”

Dean was visiting Sonoma County, Calif., with his son, Ari, when word of the hurricane broke. He first contacted Amoss, who said the brunt of the storm had not damaged the city. He later heard that the flooding had ensued. “When I saw the video, I realized how bad it was,” Dean says, noting he had some 20 of his staffers on the story at one point, adding that his links to the city helped a lot. “I think it helped me understand and generate story ideas. I did not hold back at all, it was the biggest story of the year. I think my editors would have told me if I had overdone it.”

Amoss recalls Terry and Dean keeping a constant link during all of the storm chaos. “When the storm happened Terry was, in a very palpable way, Dean’s connection to what happened in New Orleans,” he says. “They are a very close-knit family, and they care deeply about each other.”

The brothers admit that their competition on the Katrina beat, as well as a shared need to communicate and work together as a family, created some interesting moments. “We didn’t talk to each other about the stories we were competing on,” Dean says. “It was a different story for them than it was for us. We broke some stories, but they broke the most.”

Touring the city during his APME visit in October with several Times staffers, Dean says the damage was far from being completely repaired. “It was remarkable,” he says, noting the group had planned further coverage before his firing occurred. He is confident his former newspaper will keep on the story without his oversight, but stresses, “they have to make their own judgment.”

The future is now

Despite nearly two decades in the same business, Terry and Dean Baquet have yet to share a newsroom — and likely never will, says Terry, who adds, “I have never imagined working with him, or for him. It is something we never figured would happen.” As speculation increases over Dean’s future, Terry says that a return to New Orleans is probably not in the cards: “He’s moved beyond what New Orleans has to offer.” When asked where he might go, Dean remains mum, saying only, “I am going to pass on future speculation.”

Each of the Baquet brothers seems suited toward the career paths he has chosen. Dean, who left the Big Easy after just six years of newsroom training, already has time at three major papers under his belt, as well as increasing national recognition.

A polished, more experienced, and at times more carefully spoken man, Dean appears more the diplomat or subdued voice than Terry. Although clearly as fiercely journalistic and newsroom savvy as his older brother, Terry’s personality is more down-home, with a wide grin, a belly laugh, and boisterous verbiage — and with no urge to relocate. He predicts that his brother will join another newspaper, but adds that he has no inside information on Dean’s plans: “I don’t think he lays back and goes to teach. He likes to be in the thick of it.”

As for their mother, her only comment on her two youngest sons: “I’ve got two boys with two Pulitzers. Not many mothers can say that.”

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