LA Times Editor Baquet sets the table for his last supper

 —-By Mick Gregory

In what some regard as a highly arrogant move, Dean Baquet, who was named editor of the LA Times last year, was quoted yesterday in his own newspaper — saying he was defying the paper’s corporate owner, the Tribune Company in Chicago and would not make the cuts they requested. 

The paper’s publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, said he agreed with Baquet. “Newspapers can’t cut theirway into the future,” he told his reporter. 

The number of jobs at stake is unclear but the paper,the fourth largest in the country, has eliminated morethan 200 positions over the last five years from aneditorial staff that now numbers about 940. Some experts in the field believe that number is way too bloated.  

“Newsrooms have benefited from all the automation of computers and  software products, yet, they are the most labor-heavy of all media,” said Greg Michael, media analyst.

“I am not averse to making cuts,” Baquet told the paper he manages. “But you can go too far, and I don’t plan to dothat.” 

The LA Times reported that Scott Smith, president ofthe Tribune Publishing division, had asked the paper’sexecutives to come up with a plan for trimming theirbudgets, but when Mr. Smith visited
Los Angeles late
last month, they had produced no such plan. 
Baquet “made his opposition to further cuts clearand said there was no need for further discussion,” the LA Times reported.  Smith said in a statement: “In this rapidlychanging media environment, we are all workingtogether to best serve our communities, customers andshareholders.” The decision by The to take its battle against Tribunepublic may signal that Baquet is trying to rally support on the paper’s behalf, to affect a sale to local investors. Local businessmen have expressed interest in buying the paper.

Sure, Hollywood, movie stars… Life is good as an editor or publisher of the LA Times. But life is not as glamorous for stockholders in Park Ridge, Barrington and Hoffman Estates who are paying their big salaries in tinsel town.  

But at what price? Investors know not to try and grab a falling knife — Greg Michael  

The stock prices of most newspaper companies has been falling for about two years, yet many of their publications remain profitable. The Los Angeles Times reported that its operating profit margin was 20 percent, higher than that of most oil companies.   Many papers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer — have announced buyouts and job cuts over the last year. Newspaper costs, predominantly for newsprint and personnel, areoutstripping revenues and the Internet is siphoningoff readers and advertisers. The Belo Corporation announced yesterday that 111 newsroom employees at their flagship, The Dallas Morning News hadtaken buyout offers, leaving 450 editorial employees to retrench and focus mainly on local news. The dust has not yet settled on Dealey Plaza. “I expect further cuts in staff due to attrition and the heavy hand of management,” said Greg Michael of sadbastards.wordpress.com.  

Last month, David Black, whose Black Press is the new owner of The Akron Beacon Journal, laid off 40 editorialemployees, about 25 percent of the newsroom staff.

The cuts in other departments are rarely reported. Circulation help-desks are being off-shored to India. In a few years, why not some of the newsrooms?  

At The Los Angeles Times, circulation has been falling from its peak of 1.2 million in 1990. For the six months that ended in March, it was 851,500, down 5.4 percent from the period a year ago. It was the biggest drop among the top 10 dailies and more than twice theindustry average. 

The Tribune has been in particular turmoil because of aconflict in recent months with the Chandler family,its largest shareholder.  The
Chandlers have said
the company, in which The Los Angeles Times is the biggest business, is mismanaged and have called for the company to sell its assets.

“This is ironic, because it was the Chandlers who profited from the  inflated sale of Times-Mirror to the Tribune stockholders, and a major slice of their pie is Tribune stock which has fallen as the market found that stockholders paid too much, several billion dollars too much for the antiquated media giant,” Michael said.  

The Tribune board has defended management and has beenin talks with the Chandlers to try to iron out their differences. The company earlier this year bought back $2 billion worth of company stock in an attempt to prop up the stock price. They also have to make $200 million in cost cuts company-wide overthe next two years. The statements in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times seemed to be a declaration that Tribune would not find much of those savings in Los Angeles — or it could lose its top executives. 

Note to executives, get your resumes up to date.

“Tribune isn’t shy or sentimental,” said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School forCommunication at the University of Southern California. “My guess is that they don’t want to be backed into a corner.” 

My guess is that the LA Times newsroom can function well at 500. And that Baquet will be getting his walking papers in the next couple of weeks.  

As expected, Dean Baquet was forced to resign as editor of the Los Angeles Times at the request of the publisher after he refused to agree to further cuts of his editorial staff.

Baquet’s departure was to be announced Thursday but word leaked out this afternoon and the 50-year-old editor confirmed to his staff that he would be leaving the paper Friday.

Baquet will be replaced by James O’Shea, who is now managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and a long-time employee of the Tribune company.

O’Shea starts the job Monday.

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