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dean baquet

Dean Baquet was fired as editor of the Los Angeles Times after refusing to make extensive staff cuts ordered by Publisher David Hiller and the paper's owners at the Tribune Company. He is now the Washington bureau chief for The New York Times. This transcript is drawn from two interviews conducted on July 25, 2006 and Nov. 15, 2006, before and after his departure from the Times.

What's your definition of a great newspaper?

I think a great newspaper is, first and foremost, responsive to its readers. I think a great newspaper prints the truth. I think a great newspaper's aggressive. I think a great newspaper ... acts as the watchdog for the region that it covers. …

And is it in danger, that model of a great newspaper?

Yeah, I think it is, but I don't think it's quite in as much danger as people think. There's a tremendous amount of anxiety right now about newspapers and the threat to newspapers. I think there is such a threat, but I'm convinced -- and maybe it's because I believe in the reader, and I believe in the people who care about news -- I'm absolutely convinced that even if they don't survive on paper, though I think they will, ... there will always be an appetite for what's going on in the world. …

I think what's under threat is not the journalistic model. What's under more threat is the business model for what a great newspaper is. ...

The business model for newspapers is a challenge, because as we move some of our readers to the Web, ... the business side hasn't figured out a way to make a buck, the same buck on the Web that it makes on paper. But I'm just convinced that the institutions that cover the mayor, the governor, the president, the Middle East, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, that there is such a hunger for that, that there will always be institutions that can do that, whatever they look like. ...

Your former colleague, [former L.A. Times editor] John Carroll, said that the Los Angeles Times and newspapers like it are cash cows being milked by their corporate owners.

I'll say it less colorfully than John did. ... The L.A. Times makes a lot of money, without question. All of the big American newspapers make a lot of money -- not all of them, but most of them. ... I don't want this to sound grandiose or highfalutin, but I think a newspaper is a public trust, and I think my mission is a public service mission.

“I think what's under threat is not the journalistic model. What's under more threat is the business model for what a great newspaper is.”

In an odd way -- a politician might not see it this way, but I see myself as a public servant. There's tension between my view of my world and the people who own newspapers. There's no question of that, because they are beholden to shareholders, and they need -- they want for the paper to be highly profitable. Sometimes that view of what a newspaper is supposed to be and my view, which is that a newspaper is a public trust, sometimes they come into conflict.

You mean private profit versus the public interest?

Yeah, yeah. My ... priorities have to be different from [those of] the owners of the newspaper, and I think every editor should feel this way. My priority list is ordered completely differently from the people who own newspapers. My priority list is, first and foremost, cover the world; be responsive to my readers. I don't think a whole lot about how profitable the paper is. …

But you'd like to be profitable?

Sure, because if the paper's profitable, I can have more foreign bureaus; I can have more national bureaus; and I can have more investigative reporters. Sure. I don't think there's anything wrong with being profitable as an institution; I just mean, for me, as the editor of the paper, profitability is not my first goal.

How much profit do you need to make, do you think? You're not a novice in this business. ... How much profit should a newspaper make so you can have those foreign bureaus and keep the doors open?

I don't know. I can't put a number on it, and [not] just because I think it depends on the newspaper. You've got to be profitable enough to weather financial crises. You've got to be profitable enough so that if you run into a three-year recession you don't have to shrink the news wall and shrink the staff. You've got to be profitable enough so that if five of your biggest advertisers go in the tank, you don't have to suddenly pull back from your coverage of the Middle East, ... profitable enough to cover the world with comfort and not have to pull back when a big story breaks. ...

If you had asked me would I prefer an owner who wanted a modest profit margin because he or she believed in the public service mission of newspapers, I think that would be fine. That would be terrific. That would be preferable to being a publicly traded company that has to go back and forth to the whims of the market. ...

[There's also] a lot of history that shows that the non-public owner can also be dangerous for newspapers. What's going on in Santa Barbara right now, with [Wendy McCaw, owner of Santa Barbara News-Press], I suspect if you asked the people in the newsroom of the Santa Barbara paper whether they would prefer to have [McCaw] as their owner or a public company that took their journalism more seriously, I think they'd take the public company. ... History is filled with examples of awful people who ran newspapers, and ran them into the ground.

But now you answer to a publicly traded company.

Yeah, yeah. And I guess that has its serious issues, too. Neither model is perfect. I don't know what a perfect model is. ... It's hard in our capitalist society to craft the perfect ownership of newspapers. The problem with the public model is that you have the whims of the market, and you have to be responsive to shareholders. The problem with the private model is, if you have the wrong private owner, that's just as bad.

Newspapers are [in] such an odd position. We're almost like a public trust that has private ownership, and I don't think any ownership is quite perfect. But I like the St. Pete Times' ownership model.

Because it's a nonprofit.

... It's a nonprofit that sets its sights on a lower profit margin and returns a lot of money to the paper and sees its mission as completely public service, so that there's much more of a consistency between the ownership of the St. Pete Times and the editors at the St. Pete Times. In fact, most of the owners of the St. Pete Times have been editors of the St. Pete Times.

As much money as you say the paper is making, as I have come to understand it, to an investor, it isn't anywhere near what a good return is on the investment.

... I think of any other business, and even most newspapers, the return at the L.A. Times is pretty good. I suspect most American financial institutions would look at the return that the L.A. Times has and go, "Wow." Newspapers are hugely profitable, and the L.A. Times is more profitable than most. I think what's happened is ... all newspapers have gotten into the cycle of ever-increasing returns every year, and it gets harder and harder to do for institutions that, as we discussed earlier, are in a state right now where the financial model is under some threat. ...

… Would you like to see the L.A. Times locally owned?

It depends. ... I want the best, most committed ownership. My ideal owner has the same public service view of the paper's mission that I do. I can think of some local owners who wouldn't have that same view. I can think of some local owners who would be troublesome. Local owners either come with a true public service love for the city, which would be fabulous, or they come with so many local entanglements that they create problems for you. So it depends. ...

So realistically, what would you like [in an owner]?

... There's always going to be a certain amount of tension between the editor and any owner. I came here from The New York Times, which many people would say is the ideally set-up ownership because it's got a family that has an institutional, historic investment in publishing a great paper. But I can promise you there has been tension over the years between the editors and the Sulzberger family. That's just part of the game. Everybody's got different priorities.

... The ideal owner for me -- what would make me happiest? ... Lots of money, comfortable with probably a lower profit margin than Wall Street would want, steps back from the job of what the newsroom does and lets it cover even his friends or her friends.

I don't think an owner has to be uninvolved, though. ... If I was the publisher of the L.A. Times, I would want to have some involvement in the community. Otherwise, what's the point of having a local ownership anyway, if you're not going to be involved and engaged in the community? That's imperfect, but it's also great. It's great because you've got somebody who's thinking about the community. It's imperfect because you've got to trust that he won't push his friends and hurt the people he doesn't like. ...

Your owners have recently communicated to you that they have done a readers' survey, and they want to tell you how you should get new readers, right? That could change, editorially, what your content is.

... I want to know what people want to read. I want to know how people read the newspaper. In a way, newspapers have been a little bit allergic to readership surveys. I don't mind knowing that stuff. ... A certain percentage of what's in every newspaper, if we own up to it, is designed purely for reader pleasure: home sections, food sections, travel sections, even some of the stuff in the news section.

But what makes me different from a consumer product -- and when I say "me," I'm talking about the Los Angeles Times and newspapers in general -- is that one of my jobs is to sometimes give my customer things he doesn't always want. I think of a newspaper as the restaurant that, when you order just a steak and dessert, says, "Absolutely not; you've got to have some broccoli." ... Even if every readership survey said nobody wants to read about the war in Iraq, I'm still going to cover the war in Iraq. ...

Part of the problem has been that your product, the information you gather, and one of the life streams for the paper economically, classified ads, have moved to the Web, ... where it's now free. ... In fact, people can get it and companies can make money off of it ... without paying you.

Right, [like] Google and Yahoo!.

Right. Do you feel like you're being ripped off?

You know, no. I guess if I felt surer [of the] newspaper as a business, I would feel ripped off, but I don't know how you can traffic in public information the way we do and get upset when people profit from the information you disseminate. I mean, my job is to find stuff out.

So this is what I meant when I said the view of my role is different than the view of the owner of a company. My role is to find stuff out and to disseminate it as widely as possible, so it's hard for me to get upset at the Googles and Yahoo!s of the world. ...

So you don't get upset, even though they're, in a sense, taking your material and making your newspaper, your physical newspaper, somewhat obsolete?

Well, I'm not convinced they're making the physical newspaper obsolete. ...

Isn't your circulation declining?

Yeah, but I think there're a lot of reasons why, and I don't think I can blame all that on Google and Yahoo!. [One] of the reasons why circulation is declining is because some of the people who want to read the L.A. Times read it online now. I'm more excited about the prospects of the Web than I am nervous about the Googles and Yahoo!s.

The reality is, I have something like 1 million new readers on the Web that I didn't have before. The reality is I have a paper that has always struggled for national recognition. I've got a newspaper, the L.A. Times, that has been competing with The New York Times and The Washington Post for [a] generation, but because we're not nationally circulated, people don't know how good we are. Suddenly, though, on the Web, they can find out. I can have readers anywhere in the world now, and that's worth the trade-off to me. ... But again, if I was running the business side of a newspaper, I might feel the opposite.

The people you say you're not upset with -- the Internet people who repurpose your material -- say you're a dinosaur; you're the old, mainstream media, and you just don't like the idea that your economic model is quickly disappearing.

[I want to] say a couple things. First off, if we disappeared tomorrow, most of the people who call us dinosaurs would disappear, too. All the bloggers who exist to comment on us, the Googles and Yahoo!s who don't really have many of their own journalists but who rely on what we cover in the Middle East, who rely on what we write about in California and the nation and Washington, they wouldn't exist if we didn't exist.

Our economic model is obviously threatened. But ... there will always be a need for journalism. There will always be a need for coverage, and not just commentary. There will always be a need for institutions that have the wherewithal to have bureaus around the world and around the country, and big capital bureaus. There will always be the need for those kinds of institutions.

I think the people that call us dinosaurs don't understand what the world would look like if we weren't around. Their world would be very different if we weren't around. They rely on us. If we disappeared tomorrow, they might have to reinvent something that looks like us. …

You don't think they get their information from the radio, from television, which I know newspapers used to be very upset that television [in a sense] repurposed their information.

... It would be a great exercise to follow the flow of a fact that appears in Google, Yahoo! or on the radio, or on local television. I think you would trace it back to a newspaper. I think the reality is, when I drive in in the morning, and I listen to the radio, I'm listening to the front page of my newspaper and The New York Times. Those institutions that traffic in what newspapers come up with couldn't survive without newspapers.

... I say all that not to make the case that I should be comfortable. I say all that to make the case that what we do is vital and absolutely necessary, and we have to exist. I just think that economically, and for the civic life of the country, there is always going to be a desperate need for journalism. I believe that. …

But your circulation's going down.

Circulation of the actual newspaper. But if you add the readership of the paper to the readership of online, it's probably greater than it's ever been in the life of the L.A. Times.

But online it's free.

That's an economic issue, I agree. But in terms of what I do, in terms of what I find out, in terms of what I contribute to society, as a newspaper man, I've got more success that I've ever had. ...

In general talking with people about the future, they all talk about the Internet. Newspapers have to get some way of making Internet pay. Why [is it] the L.A. Times appears not to have had as big an investment in the Internet as The Washington Post or The New York Times?

I think The Washington Post first, followed by The New York Times, were really quick to embrace the Internet. I think that a lot of other newspapers, including the L.A. Times, were slow. ... I'll own up to that. ... Journalists were slow to embrace this thing. It felt odd. It felt like this thing had different deadlines. Who really reads it? We're all middle-aged. I mean, I'm young for an editor of a newspaper, but I'll be 50 soon. So we were slow to embrace it. Business sides of newspapers were slow to embrace it, too, because they ... didn't see how they were going to make money from it. So we were slow. I would own up to that. I suspect that Tribune Company would own up to it, too.

But my God, what a good thing it is now once you embrace it. First off, it feels just like the afternoon papers I started for. You get the story; you put it up. I like that. That appeals to the competitive part of me. I get e-mails now from people all over the world who read stories that they like, who read stories that I like sometimes, too. I have readers I never would have had. I have readers I never could have dreamed of having. When we do a big story, we have more impact than we ever could have had. I'm speaking as a journalist whose job it is to disseminate information. It's the best thing that's ever happened to us.

It takes away all of the boundaries, while we still get to maintain this thing we love, which is the paper on paper. I have no doubt, because of the way the capitalist system works, that the people who own newspapers will figure out a way to profit from it. Some newspapers have. The Wall Street Journal has, and some others have, too. I'm not that worried about that. I worry about this middle period, this interregnum where there's tremendous pressure on newspapers to cut costs to get ready for that future. I'm worried about protecting the institution during that middle period. But I'm excited about the Web, even though [we] and everybody else were slow to embrace it. …

Is the cost cutting affecting the ability to invest in the Web and Web operations?

There are two answers to that. First, the Tribune Company would make the case that it's invested a lot in the business side of Web sites in general. And they should make that case, that they've put money in the digital world, even if they haven't put a whole lot of money in the newsroom's operations in the digital world. I've put a lot of people on the Web because I think is part of the L.A. Times. Have we gotten a lot of financial support to do that? No. It's true we haven't.

... They're not investing in the Web, which is the future of the newspaper. They're not giving you more money for editorial employees to make the Web attract more readers.

That's true, but I'm doing it myself. I appointed an associate managing editor to go over to the Web site to run the editorial portion of it. I've put writers over, and I have more reporters doing stuff.

To be frank, you can't separate the future of the Web from the future of the newspaper. People will read because of the way we cover the governor's race or the way we cover the war in Lebanon, and it's my job to make sure the Web does that as well as the newspaper does, to make sure that they're still holding hands and working together. ...

In 2003, the Los Angeles Times became the subject of attack because of your exposé of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the eve of an election.

... That's one of the proudest moments for me as managing editor of the paper. It was a hell of a story. It was a great story. It upset some people, who canceled their subscriptions, but it was an important story, and the next day he pretty much confirmed it. So it had all the benefits of a great newspaper story: It was important, and it was true. I'm proud of that story.

Even on the eve of an election, where he didn't have a real chance to respond?

Well, he did. It was a truncated election. ... It wasn't a normal election. So we started chasing the story. We put people on the story just a few weeks before the election, and it was ready to go the night before it ran. And we had a choice. ... Even though there have been allegations we held it, we didn't. If you ever look at the different editions of the paper for that day, it was different for each edition because we were editing on deadline.

We had a choice. We reported this great story, an important story about the guy who's the leading candidate [for] governor. You can do one of two things. You can read the story, say, "This is too hot," put it in a drawer, or you can say, "Our job is to report stuff and let the readers decide." And we chose the latter.

... I started out as a newspaper reporter at 19. I've spent so much time subjugating my political beliefs. ... The main political institution that I believe in is the newspapers. I've never had a public discussion about my politics.

... If you ask me to make a list of the senior editors of the L.A. Times and whether they're Democrats or Republicans -- these are people I spend all day with -- I don't think I could tell you for most of them. I'd have to guess. ... I can tell you that some of them are conservative, sure. Absolutely.

Newspapers in big cities probably have more of a feel for big-city issues, and maybe the editors and the writers are less religious, because that's the way people are in big cities, having lived in big cities and smaller cities.

But the reality [is], the newspapers I've worked for are not liberal in their coverage. There's such a system in place to keep politics from seeping into the pages of papers.

Do we make mistakes? Sure we do. There are a lot of liberals who would say newspapers were too soft on the Bush administration during the buildup to war, and there are a lot of conservatives who now would say that we're too tough on the administration for the conduct of the war. I'm not sure how that translates into being biased one way or the other. I think extremes on both sides of the American political spectrum don't like a lot about newspapers, but that's natural if you're supposed to cover the world with some objectivity.

[Imagine] I'm a conservative sitting out here, and I'm saying: "Give me a break. Didn't you, Dean Baquet, and [New York Times executive editor Bill Keller] write an editorial together?"

It was an editorial not about a political issue; it was about a journalistic issue. It was in support of the one thing that we're openly biased about, which is the First Amendment and the importance of newspapers and publishing the things we find out.

To back up and explain it to people, The New York Times, the L.A. Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal reported on a secret government surveillance program to monitor financial transactions around the world, to oversimplify it, and the government asked us not to publish it. Going back to the example of Arnold Schwarzenegger, my job is to publish stuff. ... My job is to cover the war on terrorism. My job is to cover the government in its prosecution of the war on terrorism. One of the biggest controversies in America right now is the government's prosecution of the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism, and my job is to cover that with tremendous aggression, and I do.

Even if it reveals secrets that the government says will help the enemy.

Yes, because it's not my job to believe everything the government tells me. If the government had offered compelling proof that a life would be threatened, or if the government offered compelling proof that an ongoing operation would have been threatened, I would have felt differently.

In fact, we've held stuff back when the government has offered compelling proof of that. But I put the emphasis on "compelling proof," because history shows that the government doesn't always tell the truth when it offers a reason not to publish.

So Dean Baquet has the right to decide when something damages national security and when it doesn't?

My role as the editor of a newspaper, and the newspaper's role in the society, is in fact to try to make that kind of judgment.

That may sound arrogant, but it's not. If you read the language of the [Supreme Court] justices in the Pentagon Papers case, they specifically said that newspapers have this role in the society. In fact, it's our patriotic role. ... It's our patriotic role to fulfill our place in the firmament of the government, and fulfilling my place is to aggressively cover the government, and that means not always believing them.

In the Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court held that there was no right of prior restraint. They didn't say you couldn't be prosecuted for espionage. If you're going to make [secrets] like that public, you put yourself in harm's way at that point, in terms of the law of the United States.

Well, newspapers sometimes have to take the risk that they're going to be prosecuted ... if, in the end, you feel that your role is to publish this stuff. And in that case, I don't think the government had a compelling case. Some readers may say that's arrogant of me to make that determination, but here's my job: The L.A. Times finds out all [this] stuff; it talks to people who like the program; it talks to people who criticize the program. It goes in, and we talk to the government, and the government makes its case, and then we sit down and prudently debate among ourselves whether in that mix of stuff is a story.

In this case, it was clear to me that in that mix of stuff -- and I must say, the editors of every major newspaper in America had the same reaction -- it was clear to me that there was a story there, no matter what the repercussions were.

The director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, it's my understanding, has called you.

Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

Not just about this story, but other stories. And I know in one case, as I understand it, you didn't run the story.

Yeah. That was an interesting case. ... He made the case that we didn't have it right, but he wouldn't say what we didn't have right. And in that case, we did all the reporting we could, and we weren't 100 percent convinced we had the story. ... Essentially, we had allegations that the government had this surveillance operation set up. But we couldn't prove what kind of surveillance operation it was, what it was doing. …

Negroponte didn't even have to call. If we had written a story at that point, it would have said something like this: There are a bunch of stuff in a room, and it looks like surveillance stuff, and we don't really know what it is, but isn't this interesting? Well, that's not a story to me, and that was the judgment that we made not to publish it. ...

When George Tenet was the head of the CIA, we had a story in the works about how the CIA, because it had lost its spying apparatus in Iran, was essentially using the Iranian community in Los Angeles as its way of spying on Iran. ... Tenet called me at home. He made the case -- and it wasn't convincing -- he made the case that we would be revealing state secrets. But when I talked to the reporter and I read the story, if we were revealing state secrets, we were the last one to reveal it, because it was pretty clear that every goddamn person in the Iranian community in Los Angeles knew about it.

That informs the decision of today about the spying system. They will always say, "Don't report this because you're revealing state secrets." That's their role in the dance of democracy, and it's our role to try to best assess whether they're telling us the truth. In the case of [the SWIFT financial surveillance program] and in the case of the Iranian spying story, I determined and the paper determined that they weren't telling the truth, that they were exaggerating it. ...

[Do you] do a gut check when the director of national intelligence or the CIA director calls you?

Oh, sure. You talk it over with people in the Washington bureau; you talk to the reporter.

You don't ever say, "What are you getting me into?"

No. I want to be in that kind of situation, you know? There are only ... half a dozen news organizations in America that are in the position to find out that kind of stuff. I want to be one of them. And the price you pay is every once in a while you get a phone call like that, and you get a little nervous. Actually, I didn't get a little nervous. I thought it was great. I thought we obviously had a really good story. I had to make a judgment, but that was fine.

I would rather get that phone call and know I had a good story in the works than the alternative, which is to not be one of the institutions that gets that kind of story. I'm very competitive about that kind of story. ...


Editor's Note: The following is from an interview conducted on Nov. 15, 2006, after Baquet had left the L.A. Times.

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. …

Let me play devil's advocate. You said you'd have to close national and foreign bureaus. They say you should.

… There are only three American newspapers that are on the ground in Iraq all the time. The L.A. Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. USA Today goes in and out. They have one person. He's there on the ground sometimes and then he gets out. The wires are obviously there all the time. But nobody else has a fulltime staff who's always there. That's appalling. The thought that we would reduce that to two, maybe even one day one. That can't be. I mean, that can't be good for the country. …

[After Jeff Johnson was fired, his replacement, [David] Hiller, said he wanted you to stay.

Yeah. In his [defense] -- he didn't say, "I want you to stay and be editor of the L.A. Times." What he said was, "I'd like you to stay, and let's see if we can work it out. Let's get to know each other."

Don't expect me to drink the Kool-Aid.

He didn't say that. [Laughs] He didn't say that.

But then after that, you went to a meeting of editors in New Orleans.


Tell us about the meeting and what you said.

Sure, sure. Long before all this happened, I had been invited to be the keynote speaker at the … Associated Press Managing Editors Conference in New Orleans. …

I said that I thought that some of my colleagues as editors had let me know privately how angry they were about the cuts they'd had to make. And I said that maybe they shouldn't be so quiet about it. Maybe they should push back a little harder. … I talked about the Tribune disagreement very briefly, just to walk people up to what had happened. Mainly, I tried to talk to these managing editors about how they had to take control of their own fates; how it was time to not just let the business side of newspapers move us forward; how every time newspapers had run into a crisis in the past -- whether it was the advent of radio or television -- the genius that had saved us had come from the newsrooms, the inspiration to create feature sections, to make newspapers more compelling, and that it was time for them to do the same thing. …

[Prospective Times buyer] Eli Broad, and many other people --

A good guy. Very handsome guy. [Laughs]

Well, Mr. Broad said … he'll be satisfied with 6 to 9 percent profit. He just wants a better paper with more local coverage because it should be an L.A. paper.

[He] sounded pretty good so far. What do the other guys say? [Laughs] … I think that sounds great. I never had a conversation with Eli Broad about the paper or what he would do with the paper, but, you know, that sounds like a great owner. …

Tell me about [your departure from the Times.] …

We planned on announcing it the Thursday, … except Tuesday morning, The Wall Street Journal moved a bulletin that said that I had been forced out. And I immediately sent a note to the staff saying that it's true, you've probably seen this by now, let's all talk at 3 o'clock. So at 3 o'clock that afternoon, David came into the newsroom, the staff crowded around, hundreds of people, and I stood up on a desk and confirmed it. … I was choked up. It was very emotional. It's a great staff. …

People were walking around with a lapel pin with your picture on it?

Yeah. I was selling those for $5 -- no, I'm teasing. They were. … There were pictures of me all over the newsroom. It was touching. What I kept thinking was think of what I've been through, with this newsroom. I have personally laid people off in this newsroom.

Because that's the thing that people forget when they think about my tenure. I've done hard stuff in this newsroom. And I've had to say no in this newsroom, and I can't tell you what it's like to go out as an editor and still have your newsroom support you, when you've had to do hard stuff. That meant a lot to me. A whole lot.

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posted feb. 27, 2007

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