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Do staff cuts jeopardize news coverage?

Dean Baquet

Former editor, Los Angeles Times

Dean Baquet

Let me try to understand this. When you got [to the Times], how many employees were there? And how many are there now?

When we got there, there were close to 1,200 and by the time I left, there were roughly around 900. We lost about 20 percent of the staff, roughly over 200 people, which was difficult. …

Maybe you can describe what the attitude was or what the problem was when you got there and what you were able to accomplish.

Yeah. Well, first off, the paper had just gone through the Staples scandal, which arguably led to the sale of the paper. And the integrity of the whole institution had been called into question, even though, to be frank, I think the newsroom's role in that was minimal. I mean it was a highly principled newsroom whose reputation had been tarnished by Staples, which essentially was a case in which they produced their weekly Sunday Magazine and had agreed to share the profits with the Staples Center, which is a sporting arena in Los Angeles.

So we came in and it was a newsroom that was feeling a little down. Again, I don't think that newsroom did anything to earn the black mark on its reputation, but it was there. It was a newsroom that was down, but it was a hell of a newsroom.

I would not say that I walked in the door or [former Times Editor] John [Carroll] walked in the door and picked it up off the ground. I think it was like a Ferrari that just needed to be reminded that it was a Ferrari. And that's what we did. And I think that we won, in the course of the six years John and I were together, as many, if not more, Pulitzer Prizes than any paper in the country. Not that Pulitzer Prizes are a be-all and end-all, but for a paper that had a tarnished reputation because of Staples, they were important.

And I think they told the world that this paper is coming back. And they told the paper and the staff that we can run with anybody; we can compete with anybody. And I think that that attitude still exists in the newsroom. I think this is a paper that more than most papers in America feels like it can run and compete with anybody -- and it can. …

… You were being asked to do layoffs. Did you and John sit down and say, "We just won five Pulitzer Prizes. What's this about?"

We did. We did do that. It was painful. But we did the layoffs. And we did the layoffs and we managed the paper through the layoffs for a couple reasons. First off, as I said in the beginning, the revenue had dropped. The decision was made quickly. It was clear that some cuts had to be made. I'm not sure that those were the right cuts, but at a certain point, if you're going to lead your newsroom and the publisher made a convincing case that we had to do layoffs, you do them.

I believed that the newsroom could come out of that first round of layoffs and still be fine. I thought it'd be hard and I thought we'd have to manage the place through it and we did it. And we came out the other side and we were fine. It's the other side and we were fine. But then it got to be an annual event. And not only an annual event; it got to be not just layoffs, but the cuts started to be sort of part of the life of the paper.

It started to be -- and I think this is true in a lot of papers -- it wasn't just layoffs, it was every few months -- I mean, you'd start the year with a budget and every few months you'd re-budget and you'd cut more news [hole], more space for news. …

[You opposed further cuts, and Jeff Johnson supported you.]

Yes, I think Jeff, who was the publisher, got it. I think he believed me. I was willing to make cuts, I was willing to even give up some bodies by attrition. I was willing to make some more cuts from news hole, but I thought to take out another huge group of people -- first, it would demoralize the newsroom. Secondly, any plans we had to do anything different or new or special would just evaporate. And, third, I think people forget what it's like to lead an institution through layoffs or cuts. And I'd done it two or three years in a row. It's demoralizing. The whole place focuses on cutting. And I think, to be frank, American newspapers are now too focused on cutting.

So I just told them that I couldn't do it. … And Jeff agreed with me publicly.

They say Jeff took the Kool-Aid.

… Yeah, here's what I think happened with Jeff. And he can speak for himself, but here's what I think happened with Jeff. First off, he grew as a publisher. And not a lot of people are doing this, this growth. And it's what all publishers used to do. He goes from being on the business side, an operations guy, he takes on the publisher's chair, and, you know, suddenly your concerns are supposed to widen. You're supposed to care about the newsroom, you're supposed to care about the mission of the paper.

He got that. And he just grew. That's one thing. Secondly, while I think he agreed with me about what a big layoff would do to the newsroom, though we were both willing to do cuts, I also think that he thought it would be bad for business. I thought that he had the ad guys coming in saying, you know, we could do all of this other great stuff, we could great new sections, we could do this -- we could do this online. We could create new possibilities online. And he saw that that would be really hard to do if we kept cutting the newsroom. …

 
Charles Bobrinskoy

Vice chairman, Ariel Capital Management

Charles Bobrinskoy

[Former L.A. Times editor] John Carroll says all these cutbacks are the Chicago corporation milking the profits instead of reinvesting [them] in the product.

One of the things we haven't talked about is the lack of ability of many newspapers to take advantage of technology. Anybody who's written a report in the last 20 years knows how much easier and faster it is to gather basic information about a subject. You should be able to be much more efficient in the newsgathering function today. Newspapers have not been good at taking advantage of those functions. We still have situations with the Chicago Tribune -- the Tribune Company -- having four sets of reporters and cameramen covering the same event. There should be lots of opportunities for synergy. Until very recently, chicagotribune.com and Chicago Tribune had separate editorial staffs writing separate articles. That just made no sense.

You're talking about eliminating jobs.

A leading journalistic source said that since 1970, the number of people employed by newspapers and broadcasting companies in the news profession is up about 40 percent. So the idea that there aren't any newsmen anymore anywhere is an exaggeration.

Quantity doesn't equal quality.

That's true.

There's a lot more outlets, places to go for information, but not more in-depth reporting, more incisive, risky reporting -- Mr. Carroll's argument.

Yeah, and I would argue -- and reasonable people can disagree -- that the quality of the coverage would improve if he directed those resources toward the area where they have a core competency: Southern California. If there's a quality issue at the L.A. Times, the reason that exists is because he's trying to be all things to all people.

 
David Hiller

Publisher, Los Angeles Times

David Hiller

You must have heard that you needed to cut costs, jobs. The editors back in 2004 were resisting.

Yeah. I think one of the biggest disservices that's been done is converting this debate over the future of newspapers into a simple-minded, cuts-versus-no-cuts debate. I know that's how it got portrayed in the press, including in the pages of newspapers, including our own paper. But that makes it a way too narrow issue. The issue isn't about jobs and cuts. That's focused on the wrong thing. The issue is readers, audience, users. Those are the numbers that you've got to be focused on. Are we growing? Are we staying important to our readers and users?

Now, along the way, as we change, we're going to have to reallocate resources; we're going to have to cut in some areas; we're going to have to add in other areas. But to get dug in and make this huge issue of the future of newspaper just portrayed as something about the numbers of jobs in the newsroom is a really unfortunate oversimplification. …

It's a good business. What's the financial problem? Why are people being laid off, bought out? Fifty to 75 more reporters next year?

Yeah. On that one, we haven't said or planned or decided any number of buyouts or layoffs for next year. Let me address your bigger question. The issue for the whole newspaper industry -- not just the Los Angeles Times -- is, what's the financial trajectory of the business over time? At the present time, here in Los Angeles, we have a lot of revenue, and there is a lot of cash flow, but the question is, is it getting bigger, or is it getting smaller? That's plainly the concern that the investors have and why Wall Street is being so harsh on newspaper companies at the present time.

Your stock?

Our stock. But all -- Knight Ridder's stock until they were sold, New York Times stock, today, [McClatchy's stock]. The question is not about how you are doing today; the question is, how are you going to be doing in the future? …

[Is it] because of the stock price that these layoffs took place?

No. The stock price is a reflection of what the markets think about the future prospects of the business. So the stock price is saying that we don't think the newspapers are growing or that we don't think the newspapers are adapting to the Internet or that we don't think the newspapers are doing the right thing to attract more readers. You don't change the stock price directly. What we've got to change is how are we doing as newspapers in attracting more readers, in doing more on the Web, and so that we do have the growth that somebody, whether it's Wall Street or anybody, is going to recognize and reward us for. …

Are you beginning to cut into the ability of the Times to compete by cutting jobs?

Yeah. Well, I don't want to sugarcoat it. At some point, you do need to deal with the issue of resources, and I'm glad that [former L.A. Times editor] John Carroll -- who's another friend of mine -- I'm glad that John framed it as not cuts versus no cuts, but it's the issue of how many resources, where are they deployed, how much on the Web, how much in print. That's a legitimate and right discussion to have. But the way not to have that discussion is to get dug in and dig in one's heels and say: "Here's a bright line in the sand. One more job and we're going to heck in a handbasket, and the age of good journalism is over." …

But [former Times publisher Jeff] Johnson says you can't cut your way into the future. Maybe redeployment is what you need to do, not announcing layoffs? You're going to lose quality people.

It's certainly the case that you can't cut forever and feel that that's a successful surgery for taking it into the future. It can't be. I don't suggest that it is; I'm not aware that anybody in the rest of the company is suggesting that it is. I do understand there was a difference of opinion about a particular line in the sand about whether any more cuts on a certain level were acceptable or weren't acceptable. Frankly, I was disappointed that the conversation turned in a way where people dug in their heels on that, but people get to make their own decisions.

I prefer to look at it in the broader context of, we've got an entire business we need to reinvent, to figure out how to do a great job for readers and users. Along the way we need to stay a financially healthy business, and we need to manage on both of those fronts. And that's what I came out here to do.

You've known Mr. Johnson for a long time?

Yes.

You respect him?

A very fine guy.

He drew a line in the sand.

Yes, he did.

And it became public.

It did.

On the pages of your own newspaper.

On the pages of every newspaper in the United States. ...

Did he drink Kool-Aid, or what happened?

I don't know, and I can't speak for Jeff. He's a fine person and a very good friend. I think ultimately people who are leading a business have to share the vision, have to have a vision, and if it's a different one from the people who are the owners of the company, that's not going to work for the long term. ...

It's pretty unusual to have a publisher step out in public --

Yeah. Although I think a lot of us have said similar things, because it's true. Cuts are not a strategy, just like --

But he lost his job.

Well -- and again, I'm not sure I can add too much to all the ink that's been spilled on the past. I try to think more about how we take the business forward. But ultimately people have to people able to lead, change in a positive way, and if they get stuck in the past or dig in your heels on a particular point about how the business is going to be taken forward, that's not a way to lead.

The concern is that these cuts will cut into the quality journalism that got you those Pulitzer Prizes.

Well, that's certainly a risk, and that's certainly what you want to avoid. You don't want to diminish the journalism. You don't want to take things away from readers. What you're trying to do is build up readers and build up online users and do it as smartly as you can. But the other thing you've got to do is be realistic about where the business is headed and where advertisers are going. So it's a balance between maintaining a healthy business and being sure that you're delivering really outstanding journalism for your readers and users. ...

People say the cuts will cut into the quality of the paper, and the transition to the Web will be impossible.

Let me say this, and with all due respect, but just listening to you and your questions -- which every one seems to be focused on cuts -- illustrates to me the problem of this whole discussion. [It's] that people are trying to turn what should be a very robust conversation about change in the media business to deal with the future into this "cuts versus no cuts." Like, "less filling, tastes great," great sound bites, but not very useful, with all due respect; not very useful in thinking about how we take this business forward.

People are saying, why did the Tribune not invest more in the Internet operation at the Times? ... Why didn't you have more Latino reporters if you wanted to get into the Latino community?

We certainly should be doing that. But let me take you up on the point about the Internet. How much would you guess the Tribune Company, including for the Los Angeles Times, has invested in the Internet?

I understand lots of money. ...

Hundreds of millions of dollars, including for the benefit of the Los Angeles Times. I am the first to agree, I think we need to do a ton more with the Internet and the Web site. I actually like our Web site, but there are things we can do. There's so much that we can do. ...

So you're going to be redeploying resources into your Web site?

Yes, definitely.

Is the money you're saving by doing layoffs or buyouts going to go into the Web site?

Well, I haven't done any buyouts or layoffs, but we are -- I think we're going to be moving people; I think we'll be moving dollars. Also, what we need to do -- and this gets a little lost sometimes -- is we need to retool basically everything we do in the newspaper so that it works for the Web as well as for print. ...

One of the biggest things we're going to be doing is basically transforming our print newsroom so that it's across every desk, producing news, information and content that can be used across print, online, wireless, video, you name it. We were behind on that. That's another area where I think over the last several years we could have been doing more. That's a more interesting and fruitful focus than this issue of, if you pardon my going back to this, this [canard] of cuts versus no cuts. …

 
James O'Shea

Editor, Los Angeles Times

James O'Shea

Do you know [former L.A. Times publisher] Jeff Johnson?

No.

Never met him?

Oh, I met Jeff very briefly. When I say I don't know him, he and I have never really sat down and had an extended conversation. ...

But you did work with [former L.A. Times editor] Dean [Baquet].

I worked with Dean, yes. I did.

His fear is that -- along with his predecessor, John Carroll -- that the guts are going to be cut out of the news organization in these cutbacks, right?

He and I have talked privately and as friends about cutbacks, and I don't want cutbacks either. But I'm a realist. If your revenues are starting to fall and your expenses continue to go up, that's not a good formula. So something's got to give, and you have to start saying, "OK, what do we have to do to reverse this?"

I guess my difference is I don't have the time and the focus on, well, what caused the problem? The only thing I can really focus on is, what's the solution? How do we get out of this? ... And that's what is going on right now.

The Los Angeles Times, under John Carroll and Dean [Baquet], won, I believe, 13 Pulitzer Prizes. Yet they're asked to cut. It would seem like you would want to build on that rather than cut.

I do want to build on that. I have to build on it in a different way, though. Dean and John both focused a lot of attention on the newspaper and not enough attention online. I think if you asked them both, they'd probably say that's right. I have to look at it and say, OK, I have to figure out what's the right balance between the newspaper and online to establish a news organization that draws a larger audience of readers. ...

The question seems to be, with declining revenue from the newspaper, the hope is that it will be replaced by increasing revenue online. Is that right?

Right. Right.

And then some numbers I just looked at say that a subscriber to a newspaper is worth, to the news organization, approximately $1,000, but someone who's reading it online is worth about $5.

Right. Right, right.

Will the Internet revenue ever catch up to the newspaper revenue? How can that possibly happen if that's the different scale of --

Well, it's a different scale now, but if you can create a larger audience online, you can start charging more for it. ... The Los Angeles Times has to become the premier locally edited and produced newspaper for Southern California that gives our readership the best information about the nation, the world, the local region, the state of California, and it has to deliver it both in print and online.

At this time, our biggest audience is print, and nobody says you can quit investing in that; you have to. But the big key thing is you have to figure out, how can I take some of the assets that I have invested in the newspaper and convert them to online, and build a bigger audience online? ... Well, I say online will become the discovery area of our organization: This is where people will go to discover things, and this is where people will go to find breaking news, and this is where people will go to find out, well, if I want to take a trip, how do I book it, and where do I go? ...

One of the main investors in the Tribune Company, [vice chairman of Ariel Capital Management Charles Bobrinskoy], said to us [the Los Angeles Times] has to go local and give up the idea that it's one of the big national newspapers, that it's kind of the New York Times of the West Coast or a competitor with The New York Times on all major stories.

I don't totally agree with that. I don't think the Los Angeles Times can be successful by relying on someone else to cover the world for it. Can't happen. People here want more than that from the Los Angeles Times. ...

Now, should it be The New York Times? No. The New York Times is The New York Times. The Chicago Tribune is the Chicago Tribune. The Los Angeles Times should be the Los Angeles Times, because that's how it will be successful. And being the Los Angeles Times is being a major newspaper in America, covering not only the city but also the nation and the world.

Today the Los Angeles Times competes with The New York Times on most major national and international stories, so the fear is that it will disappear from that regular competition on all major national and international stories and that it's one of the only other general-interest newspapers in the country that does that.

I don't know of anybody that's advocating that we will disappear from the national or foreign scene. ... But I think you also have to cover Southern California. If you don't cover your own backyard, you are going to lose a lot of readers. You have to cover it; any newspaper has to do that.

But your predecessors would say exactly the same thing. They would say, "We do a better job of covering the region and the state, but we also have to have this national and international presence, and we're in danger of not being able to do that."

Well, I agree with them on that issue. Do we have to have exactly the same number of people we have today covering that area? I don't know that. I don't think that is necessarily true. You may have to adjust a little bit. ... Maybe some people have to change their beats, work a little harder, but it doesn't mean you quit covering Washington. ... And that doesn't mean I'm going to give up covering the war in Baghdad. We have to cover the war; people want that. It's our obligation to cover that. ... But I also believe you have to be in Sacramento covering the State House. ...

How many people does the Chicago Tribune have in Washington, D.C.?

I would say probably somewhere between 15 and 20. I don't know exactly anymore. I think at one point we had about 19 people in Washington.

And the Los Angeles Times has?

Probably double that.

So the fear is that you won't have the same kind of in-depth coverage because you'll be redeploying resources here into the state?

Well, that may be the fear. ... Let's say I have 40 reporters in Washington and suddenly I decide I'm going to have 35. Does that really mean that I'm going to lose depth? I doubt it. I covered Washington for 10 years. I know a little bit about how to do it, and it's not related to the number of people you've got there; it's related to the quality of people you've got there and what kind of story they're after. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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