In advance of expected newsroom cutbacks, John Carroll has ankled as top editor of the Los Angeles Times. His No. 2, Dean Baquet, will take over as exec VP and editor on Aug. 15.
Baquet, 48, will be the first African-American editor of the paper, which will now be the largest in the country to be led by a minority editor.
As the struggles with declining circulation and ad revenue, one of Baquet’s challenges will be cutting costs at the paper.
“The publisher (Jeffrey Johnson) has made it clear that we’re going to have to tighten our belts in the coming months,” said Baquet.
Carroll, 63, took over the paper shortly after the Chicago-based Tribune Co. acquired it in 2000. Prior to that, he had been the top editor for nine years at the Baltimore Sun.
One of Carroll’s first moves when he arrived in L.A. was to recruit Baquet, thennational editor at the New York Times, to be managing editor.
But with the L.A. Times’ circulation down significantly this year along with ad revenue, Carroll is said to have been unwilling to make cuts in the newsroom budget as deep as Tribune management would like.
Cost-cutting, Carroll said, was only part of his decision to step down on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to understress it or overstress it,” he said of cutbacks. “It’s true I was concerned about budgetary issues, but there were other factors, including my own desires after editing three papers to try to discover if there was life on the outside,” he said.
Though he acknowledged the likelihood of another round of newsroom cutbacks — last year 62 news jobs were eliminated through layoffs and buyouts — he said, “There’s nothing in the works that’s as bad as what people think is coming.”
For the first six months of the year, daily circulation at the Times was off 6.5% while Sunday circ was down 7.9%.
Carroll joined the Times in 2000 with a track record of improving newspapers. Before going to the Baltimore Sun in 1991, he was the editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Working closely together at the Times over the past five years, Carroll and Baquet have overhauled the L.A. Times, bulking up the international and national news desks, introducing sections such as California, which carries local and state news, and closing down several regional editions, and establishing investigative reporting units in L.A. and D.C.
Carroll’s moves were credited in increasing the L.A. Times national prestige — during his tenure, the paper won 13 Pulitzer Prizes, including two this year and five in 2004.
Because Baquet has been so intimately involved in newsroom management, he is not expected to institute wide-ranging staff changes.
It was Baquet, for instance, who is said to be responsible for recruiting John Montorio from the New York Times to lead the L.A. Times’ feature departments.
However, Baquet did say there are improvements he wants to make at the paper.
“If there is anything I would like to say, I’d like to emphasize local coverage,” he said. “I want to unleash some better writers on L.A. and focus more on the sense of place.”
After years of cutting back regional offices, Baquet said he’d like to devote more reporters to the areas surrounding L.A., such as Orange County.
As for showbiz, Baquet said he was happy with current entertainment coverage, but added, “I would like to get a little better on celebrity coverage,” which includes such stories as Tom Cruise’s romance with Katie Holmes and the Michael Jackson trial.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in the courthouses of Los Angeles,” he said.
Baquet said he’d also be looking at adding more investigative reporting and will work more closely with the Web site team.
One definite change to be made as Baquet takes over: The opinion pages will now report to the publisher and not to the editor, as they had with Carroll.
Johnson said in a statement, “This change underscores the independence of these pages from the news operations.”
From time to time, Carroll has fought off charges that news coverage in the Times was tinged by political bias. In 2003, he wrote in a well-publicized staff memo, “I’m concerned about the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper.”
Later that year, the paper became the center of such charges when, on the eve of the California gubernatorial recall election, it published a series featuring women who claimed Arnold Schwarzenegger had harassed them. Schwarzenegger’s campaign and supporters said the stories were a calculated attempt by the Times to influence the election.
Speaking to a group in his hometown of New Orleans, Baquet defended the paper’s recall campaign coverage. “I think the newspaper should kick you around sometimes. It should make you mad. It should upset the community. I’d prefer you respect us than love us,” he said according to local press reports.
And on Tuesday, Baquet again defended those pieces. “The Arnold story is a story I’m very proud of,” he said.
Baquet began his career in New Orleans, first for the States-Item and then the Times-Picayune. He then moved to the Chicago Tribune in 1984, where he was one of three reporters whose investigations of local political corruption won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
He joined the New York Times in 1990, first as an investigative reporter and ultimately rising to national editor.
Baquet said he was never promised the top L.A. Times job when he made the move, but Carroll said it was certainly on his mind when he hired him.
“When you appoint a No. 2 editor, you should find someone who can become No. 1,” he said.
Don Hudson, managing editor of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and a member of the National Assn. of Black Journalists who tracks the number of African-American editors in U.S. newsrooms, said that prior to Baquet’s promotion, there were only 14 African-Americans leading daily newspapers, including Michael Days of the Philadelphia Daily News and Gregory Moore of the Denver Post.