A Bold Stance  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2006

A Bold Stance   

An editor stands up to the bean counters, and goes public with it.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet had reached his limit.

The paper had shed more than 200 newsroom jobs in recent years. It was time to stop the bleeding.

So when the Tribune Co. bean counters in Chicago told him to wield the ax yet again, he said no mas.

And, remarkably, went public with it, in an article in his own newspaper, no less.

It is a brave and inspiring stance.

And a timely one. Once again, staff slashing is all the rage in the newspaper business.

The Dallas Morning News, not satisfied with last year's carnage, just lopped off more than 100 newsroom jobs through buyouts. David Black, the new owner of the Akron Beacon Journal, had barely figured out where Ohio was when he got rid of a quarter of his editorial staff. Even the Washington Post isn't immune; it just had its second newsroom buyout adventure in three years.

Tribune, which recently decided to mothball Newsday and Baltimore Sun foreign bureaus, has already lost two outstanding editors thanks to its penurious ways. Baquet's predecessor, John S. Carroll, who had resurrected the Times after the awful Mark Willes era, stepped down last year rather than do any more trimming. And Bill Marimow, now NPR's head news honcho, was sacked at the Baltimore Sun. Marimow had vigorously resisted management by cutback.

Interestingly, Baquet was backed up by his publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, who had been sent out from Chicago to replace John Puerner, a staunch Carroll ally. Steve Lopez, the great L.A. Times columnist, says that Johnson has "gone native."

Cuts aren't evil in and of themselves. Everyone can understand making them when a business is struggling for survival. (Full disclosure: AJR, the noted cash cow, has laid people off in its quest to keep the lights on.) And, yes, this is a challenging time for newspapers, as readers and advertisers continue to gravitate online.

But newspapers aren't on the verge of bankruptcy. The Times, according to an article in the paper, is making about a 20 percent profit, which many industries would kill for.

The impetus for cuts, as everyone knows, comes from Wall Street, which is insatiable when it comes to profits. But cuts alone won't do it for the Street. It needs to see the potential for revenue growth as well.

If you don't believe me, just ask Tony Ridder.

Baquet says, if anything, his newsroom needs more people, not fewer. And that's true for many newspapers. Here's why.

Belatedly, the newspaper business has recognized that its future lies not simply in the declining core product but in a robust mix of the paper, an extensive and sophisticated online operation and a wide array of niche products. At a time when newspapers must do much more, it makes little sense to be shrinking the workforce.

But with a game plan of cut, cut, cut, the result is trying to survive in an increasingly competitive market with a weaker product. Not an inspired strategy.

Scott C. Smith, the president of Tribune Publishing, says staff size is no big deal. "There is a misperception that counting numbers of people is the right way to measure the quality of a great newspaper," he told the Times. "You are mixing quality and quantity."

Not really. To do quality journalism takes lots of people. Enterprise reporting and investigative journalism are very labor-intensive. As the staff shrinks, they are the first casualties. Sure, you can cover the meetings, but it becomes harder and harder to do the in-depth reporting that truly serves readers and distinguishes newspapers from their competitors.

As Times Publisher Johnson said, "newspapers can't cut their way into the future."

That's why 20 prominent Angelenos sent a letter to Tribune warning against further cuts. Their action is a vivid reminder that newspapers aren't merely businesses like any other. They are, as the letter-writers said, a "special public trust."

It will be fascinating to see how the standoff between Baquet and his bosses plays out. Baquet, an outstanding journalist who had worked at the New York Times and was Carroll's managing editor, came close to resigning when Carroll did. His departure would be a devastating blow for one of the nation's journalistic treasures.

And it would tell us volumes about what really matters to Tribune.

###