Keller on Cutbacks, ‘L.A. Times’ and ‘Panic’ in the Industry

By: E&P Staff

The PBS “Frontline” program opened its four-part media probe this week with a look at the Plame affair and related Iraq war issues. For the series, the producers interviewed dozens of well-known journalists and, in the usual fashion, their comments will appear in snippets. But has also posted the transcripts of more than 50 interviews at its site and E&P has been presenting excerpts, yesterday featuring Bob Woodward, Judith Miller, Carl Bernstein and others.

Now here is Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, talking about the recent cutbacks and uproar over Dean Baquet’s comments and Los Angeles Times exit, along with a wider look at industry trends in this regard. The session took place before the recent Times’ hiring of Baquet as Washington bureau chief.

The interviewer is Lowell Bergman.


Q: As a competitor of yours, what can you say about the Los Angeles Times situation?

KELLER: Well, I’ve got to qualify everything I say by saying I’ve never worked at the L.A. Times, … so this is the view from afar. I do appreciate, as somebody who grew up in California, that the L.A. Times has a kind of strategic problem that’s different from a lot of other places: L.A. is so sprawling and spread out, and most of the people who live in their circulation area don’t think of themselves as living in L.A. There’s even a kind of antipathy towards the name in the region, let alone in Northern California. So that creates all kinds of difficulties.

But the idea that the L.A. Times is going to say to readers, “Buy the L.A. Times, we will tell you what’s going on with the traffic and the schools and the cops and the local stuff, and if you want to know what’s going on in Iraq, go buy The New York Times,” that doesn’t sound like a terribly sound business approach either. And if I were a Los Angelino, I would be a little insulted by that. Why are the two mutually exclusive? …

Q. What the current publisher, Mr. [David] Hiller, said to us was that The New York Times’ model is not a model for the L.A. Times. The New York Times has, as he put it, given up its local circulation, which has gone way down, for a national circulation, and the L.A. Times would die if that happens.

KELLER: I don’t think we’ve given up our local circulation, but we’ve rebalanced our circulation so that it’s more than half of it is national, that’s true. I don’t know what the model is for L.A., and I’m not going to presume to say that The New York Times is the model for the Los Angeles Times; I’m not sure that the Chicago Tribune is the model for the Los Angeles Times, either.

But it just seems common sense to me that you can satisfy people’s need to know what’s going on in their own community and tell them what’s going on in Washington and in Baghdad. It wasn’t all that long ago that a lot of newspapers did that: They performed strong local journalism, but they sent a correspondent to the war in Vietnam, they had a guy in Jerusalem or a guy in London. … It’s not a terribly novel idea, that you can try to serve both. …

Q. What do you think of Dean Baquet and the fact that this whole controversy [about Baquet refusing to make staff cuts ordered by L.A. Times’ parent the Tribune Company] broke out into public view and in the pages of the L.A. Times itself?

KELLER: I should say that Dean’s a friend; he’s somebody I’ve worked with in the past, and somebody I admire immensely as a journalist. Again, I don’t know whether the right size of the Los Angeles Times newsroom is 1,200 journalists or 900 journalists or 800 journalists or what it is, but I know in my gut that he picked the right fight, and the fight is over having journalists. If you’re going to do good journalism, you have to have good journalists, whether you’re going to do it on the Web or in print. …

Q. But now you’re getting applications from the L.A. Times?

KELLER: That’s true, and that’s partly, of course, because they lost Dean. And he is an inspirational leader, somebody that people love to work for. I know of specific people that we’ve tried to hire who would’ve loved to come to The New York Times but wanted to stay and work for Dean.

But it’s partly because of the message that they have heard emanating from the Tribune Company, which is, we’re thinking of a kind of different, smaller, cheaper, more profitable newspaper. Certainly the people who’s biggest interest is writing national or international news have taken that as a kind of vote of no confidence. …

Q. Even after everything got public in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, [Baquet] gave a speech in New Orleans, where he urged editors to stand up to their publishers and to start pushing back on the issue of cuts in the newsroom.

KELLER: I asked Dean to e-mail me a copy of it and I read it, and I think people have made too much of that. … The speech was actually even-tempered. It was not, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” He wasn’t urging people to rise up and revolt. …

Q. No. But he was saying that there’s an unspoken anxiety amongst editors around the country, that they’re being squeezed.

KELLER: Well, of course there is. How could there not be? You look at what’s happened in Philadelphia, what’s happening in Baltimore, what’s happening in — well, now Los Angeles; a lot of places with storied newspapers with histories of really aggressive, impressive, prize-winning journalism, being hollowed out.

I’ll tell you a couple of statistics that I’ve ran across lately, one of which I keep repeating at every opportunity. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, there were more than 1,000 foreign journalists in Iraq; today, there are fewer than 75. Now, I appreciate a lot that is because it’s an incredibly dangerous place to work, but a lot of that is because newspapers are in retreat from covering complicated, foreign stories.

Throughout the coverage of the midterm elections, I was hearing from our reporters that the [campaign] buses were kind of empty, that on some of the major campaigns, even big papers in the states where the races were going on were not assigning the kind of reporting coverage that they would have in the past, that some of the major papers were telling their political reporters, “You have to clear it with us if you want to take an airplane somewhere.” That isn’t economy; that’s suicide.

When I have an opportunity to talk to editors and publishers, I tell them this, that I think the gravest danger facing our business is not new technology or changing demographics or hostile administration in Washington or the blogosphere. The gravest danger facing our business is surrender, despair, panic. There’s a lot of it going around. …

Q. Let me tell you what the Tribune Company’s representatives said to me about this: They said this whole argument has become a soap opera in which it has been oversimplified into cuts or no cuts. What this is really about is, how do we survive in the future? The business model that existed at one time no longer exists. …

KELLER: Well, first of all, Dean had done [a] considerable amount of cutting. He reduced the size of the L.A. Times newsroom from around 1,200 to 900 and some. That’s not exactly refusing to go along. And implicit in the notion that you’re going to reinvent the news-gathering business model is that you’re going to do news gathering. Who’s going [to] gather that news? There’s nothing more ridiculous than this notion that has taken hold that you can do good journalism without good journalists. It’s silly. …

Q. Both Dean Baquet and the now-former publisher Jeff Johnson said to us that their first responsibility is to the readers, not to the shareholders. Are they being naive?

KELLER: I think that’s the way journalists have to think. Clearly the institution of a newspaper has responsibilities to both, … but if you’re an editor, you should wake up in the morning thinking about the reader. …

Q. Dean also said that Wall Street is his enemy. … I guess what Dean was referring to is that [despite] the L.A. Times’ billion dollars in revenue, over 200 million in profit, they don’t like the idea that it looks like it’s in decline. Same thing with The New York Times?

KELLER: There is one way in which Wall Street, the concept, is inimical to journalism, and that is that Wall Street tends to be conducive to shorter-term thinking. … That creates a lot of pressure on publishers and executives of newspaper companies to also think short-term, which is one reason I’m really happy to work for a company that has a little bit of insulation from the whims of Wall Street, by virtue of being controlled by a family. …

We have two classes of stock. The functional control of the company rests in stock that belongs to the Sulzberger family, and they make the major decisions regarding what the budgets will be, what the investment will be, and so on. Obviously, they’re not indifferent to the economics of the company, they think about that a lot. But they have the luxury of thinking over the longer term, and one result of that has been that in the past when there have been economic downturns The New York Times has often chosen those moments to invest rather than cut, knowing that when the cycle turned back and the marketplace recovered, we’d be in a stronger position. …

Q. But Wall Street has, and I’m thinking specifically of Morgan Stanley, has gone public, criticizing investment strategy of The New York Times, the way in which the company is run.

KELLER: First of all, it’s not Wall Street, and second of all, it’s not Morgan Stanley. It’s one investment fund within Morgan Stanley and one fund manager who has made this crusade. … The one thing I can say from the newsroom point of view is I wake up every day grateful for the Sulzberger family. And the same thing would be true at some of the other major newspapers that have similar arrangements: The Washington Post, which is under the control of the Graham family; The Wall Street Journal under the Bancroft family; once upon a time, the L.A. Times under the Chandler family. All of these companies have run very sound, profitable businesses while sustaining that civic function of providing good journalism, and they’ve been able to do that because they didn’t have to respond in a panic to every quarterly return. …

Q. But what they are saying is that … the family ownership has a management in-house that is not producing enough capital given who they are, not enough profit given who they are and what they’ve got. They’ve made bad investments.

KELLER: I guess I would just respond to a critic who makes that kind of charge: Show me your list of what you regard as the stellar examples of media companies, and then let’s sit down and look at what they actually produce.

Q. Meaning that they don’t necessarily produce very good products?

Meaning the most profitable companies are not necessarily the ones that are producing something that you’d be proud to be associated with.


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