John Carroll Bows Out in L.A.  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2005

John Carroll Bows Out in L.A.   

Dean Baquet succeeds him as Times’ editor.

By Lori Robertson & Rachel Smolkin
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.            

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   » Changing Times

Los Angeles Times Editor John S. Carroll, one of the luminaries of the journalism business and the leader credited with revitalizing a beleaguered Times, announced his retirement at a staff meeting Wednesday. He will be succeeded by Managing Editor Dean P. Baquet, whom Carroll lured five years ago from a promising future at the New York Times.

Publisher and CEO Jeffrey M. Johnson announced the changes Wednesday morning at a staff gathering outside Carroll's office in the third-floor newsroom. Carroll said he thought his staffers not only did "exceptional journalism" but also were exceptional in the way they practiced journalism. He said he'd been thinking the last couple years about the best time to leave and that several factors contributed to his reasoning, but he was not going to get into any of them except for one: He couldn't remember the last time he'd taken a two-week vacation.

Carroll, 63, received a sustained standing ovation from the staff. He and Baquet embraced and Carroll handed him the microphone; Baquet then told his staff he cared about hard-hitting stories and beautifully written stories and his dream for the Times was that it become the best paper in the country. He has not named his managing editor. In another change, the editorial and opinion pages will now report to the publisher rather than the editor.

"I'm taking over one of the best newspapers in America at the top of its game in a city I care about, succeeding somebody who's a close friend," Baquet told AJR. While "every newspaper right now is under budget pressure," Baquet says he "wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could still make the paper better."

"It's been a wonderful five years," Carroll said in an interview. "I caught more breaks than I ever had a right to expect, and I've loved working here."

He says no single incident led to his decision, which he had been mulling for quite some time. "I thought about it a lot and talked about it a lot with other people at the paper," he says. "I reached a decision fairly recently and worked it out with everybody concerned."

In addition to Carroll's stated desire to take some time for himself and his family, staffers and confidantes familiar with Carroll's thinking cited his frustration with recurring cuts ordered by parent Tribune Co., which acquired the Times and seven other former Times Mirror newspapers in 2000; his disappointment over the loss of his close partner at the paper, former Publisher John P. Puerner, who announced in March that he was stepping down; and his desire to create a smooth transition for Baquet and the paper.

Gene Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, managing editor of the New York Times and now a professor of journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, says he's concerned about the impact of business pressures on the L.A. Times but glad to see Baquet succeed Carroll. When it comes to budget negotiations, "hopefully a fresh set of tonsils might help," Roberts says. "John has been talking and struggling for some time now, and I wish Dean every success. And hopefully he'll pull it off. But it's pretty clear that if John had gotten the assurances that he felt he needed, he would have unquestionably stayed. And it's clear, and I'm not talking from any inside information, it's clear that he tried and tried and tried to have some meeting of the minds. And was not able to get it to his satisfaction."

In an earlier meeting with senior editors, Carroll acknowledged budget pressures but said they were not the deciding factor, according to Deputy Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky.

Roberts first got to know a young John Carroll when they both covered the Vietnam War. In 1972, Roberts, who calls his protege "arguably the finest editor in the country," hired him at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Many other journalists were equally effusive. "He has a good claim to have been the best editor of his generation," says Doyle McManus, the Times' Washington bureau chief, "whether you want to score that by counting Pulitzers or anything else."

The Times earned 13 Pulitzers during Carroll's tenure and took home five of those in 2004, a feat surpassed only when the New York Times earned seven after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"This guy has been editor of several newspapers now, and I don't know anyone who's ever worked for him that wouldn't go to work for him again, wouldn't be back there again, standing in line to work for John Carroll," says Bill Kovach, founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. "He's the kind of talent that we really can't afford to lose... The press as an institution is going to miss his strength in a newsroom."

Edwin Guthman, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, worked with Carroll at the Philadelphia Inquirer and describes him as an editor who always pushed reporters to dig deeper and to go beyond the obvious. Guthman says he's seen much improvement at the Times since Carroll took over. "He brought in outstanding people, including the man who's replacing him, Dean Baquet," Guthman says. Local, national and foreign coverage "became much more intensive and much more investigative and much more informative."

Carroll is "a reporter's editor," James M. Naughton, another former Philadelphia colleague and former president of the Poynter Institute, wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "He's supportive, accessible and hands-on when you need hands-on. Oh, yes, he's also unflappable. When he took the job in Los Angeles, he did so only on the assurance that he could be an editor, not someone with that title who was in meetings all day every day."

When Carroll arrived at the Times in April 2000, the paper was battered by criticism over its disastrous 1999 deal to share ad revenue from a special magazine issue about the Staples Center with the center itself (see "Down and Out in L.A.," January/February 2000).

"John restored the L.A. Times' morale, its integrity and really led it to new journalistic heights," says William K. Marimow, a managing editor at National Public Radio and longtime friend of Carroll. The two worked together at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where Carroll edited Marimow's Pulitzer Prize-winning series on police brutality, and at the Baltimore Sun, where Marimow served as Carroll's managing editor.

Carroll's leadership in Los Angeles also was notable for the tight-knit team he formed with Puerner and Baquet. In August 2000, Carroll recruited Baquet, 48, from the New York Times, where he was national editor. Baquet had worked early in his career at the Tribune Co.'s Chicago Tribune, where he shared a Pulitzer for investigative reporting with Ann Marie Lipinski, now the paper's editor.

Carroll and Baquet formed an "invincible team," says Carla Hall, a reporter in the L.A. Times' California section. They appeared to trust each other and respect each other's opinions, even when those opinions differed. She enjoyed watching their divergent styles and backgrounds mesh: Carroll the "patrician Southern gentleman" and Baquet, more casual and joking in his manner. "It seemed like if you were going to make a movie about an editor and a managing editor, they'd be this wonderful, kind of cool contrast," she says.

She described the mood in the newsroom as "bittersweet. People are sad to see John go, but very happy to see Dean as editor."

Carroll also worked very closely with Puerner, and staffers credited the duo with improving the paper and fighting against corporate pressures to cut costs. But in March, Puerner announced he would take a "self-imposed career break." A note to staffers described his decision as voluntary, but the Times article on his departure said that "some of his top managers noted the increasing pressure he had been under to expand the paper's readership and to improve its bottom line."

Despite the journalistic achievements under Carroll, Puerner and Baquet, daily circulation dropped from 1,078,000 in September 1999 to 907,997 as of March.

As the Tribune Co. struggled with disappointing ad revenue and a circulation scandal at Newsday, corporate demand to boost revenue and cut costs continued. About two months after the paper's triumph in the 2004 Pulitzers, Carroll learned Tribune was ordering cuts because of an ad revenue shortfall. The Times eliminated some 160 jobs--including 42 news staffers who took buyouts and 20 who were laid off--as well as 30 jobs at various business affiliates. The paper also cut newshole, dropping about 30 pages a week, according to one editor.

The Times has had a rocky relationship with its new parent company, resisting corporate initiatives to publish stories from other Tribune papers and chafing at the bottom-line focus. (See "Uncertain Times," December 2004/January 2005).

"It's crystal clear that John is leaving because had he stayed, he would have had to dismantle, through staff reductions and newshole reductions, a big chunk of what he built at the L.A. Times," says one former colleague.

Roberts, who himself left an editorship at the Philadelphia Inquirer after a long battle over budgets with Knight Ridder, worries about what Carroll's departure means for the industry, and the state of news. "I think it's not just a journalistic setback, it's a national tragedy," Roberts says, noting that the L.A. Times is one of the four top newspapers in the country, a list that includes the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. "What we know in this country basically about foreign affairs comes today from those newspapers and AP," Roberts says. "And if the quality of the L.A. times diminishes--and it's pretty clear this was one of the great factors John was worried about--our whole national enlightenment suffers... There's a substantial deficit then in the news that national debate is shaped around."

Whether the L.A. Times will have a tenuous grasp on its status among the top papers in the country remains to be seen. But Orville Schell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that the paper has remained among the elite despite its corporate ownership. "Interestingly, the L.A. Times is really the best, I think, sort of flagship paper of all of the chains," Schell says. "The other [top papers] are all kind of quasi-family operations--the Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal--so that's a very heavy headwind to sail against." While Tribune starts "cutting to the bone when their numbers are down," the other papers have more flexibility.

When Johnson was named, Carroll, always meticulous in his choice of words, offered guarded remarks to his paper. He said he had no plan to follow Puerner's departure but was unsure about the future. "Editors live from publisher to publisher, and we have a new publisher who I know and like," Carroll told the Times. "And I hope he knows and likes me. But, you know, nothing is guaranteed in life."

Carroll told his staff that in his meetings with Johnson, the publisher made clear his commitment to journalism.

Carroll began his newspaper career in 1963 as a reporter at the Providence Journal-Bulletin in Rhode Island; served in the U.S. Army from 1964 to 1966; worked at the Baltimore Sun in a range of reporting positions including Vietnam correspondent and White House reporter and then held several editing positions at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He has served in the top editor's role continuously for the last 24 years, beginning at Kentucky's Lexington Herald (now the Herald-Leader) in 1979, moving to the Baltimore Sun in 1991 and arriving at the Times in April 2000.

He oversaw series on brutality by homicide detectives while in Philadelphia; cash payoffs and pervasive cheating in the University of Kentucky's basketball program while in Lexington; the dangers the international shipbreaking industry posed to workers and to the environment while in Baltimore; conflicts of interest at the National Institutes of Health and perilous conditions at the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center while in Los Angeles. Another story he loved at the Sun: The paper sent two writers into southern Sudan to purchase slaves and release them.

What's next for Carroll? "I think I'm going to be taking a long vacation, and then I'll know when it's time to go back to work because I'll be bored. And I'll try to find something that's new and stimulating and challenging and tackle it," he says. "It will be related to journalism, I'm sure, but I have no idea what it will be."

As for the future of the Times, Baquet faces the challenge of keeping the paper true to the distinguished journalistic traditions he and Carroll share. "I think Dean Baquet is a very good editor," Schell says. "But he's going to have his hands full to keep the L.A. Times a great paper as well as a paper that makes a lot of money, or makes enough money. What's enough? Good question."

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