To Quit or Not to Quit?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2009

To Quit or Not to Quit?   

When confronted with cutbacks that seem devastating, should leaders of news organizations resign on principle or keep on fighting?

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     


Ann Marie Lipinski thought about it, then thought about it some more. As editor of the Chicago Tribune, Lipinski was acquainted with stress her tenure had begun a few months before September 11, 2001 but the haggles and the hassles had multiplied as the months rolled on. Parent Tribune Co.'s financial problems, the pressure and the conflict, were constant. Controversial new owner Sam Zell had taken over. There were family issues to consider, too. After 30 years in the Tribune's newsroom, Lipinski began to wonder if it was time to go.

Early last year, she resolved to resign, then had a change of heart. But when a key ally told her he was leaving the paper, Lipinski decided she was out, too. In July, she tendered her resignation. "This position is not the fit it once was," she told her disappointed colleagues in a gracious, if somewhat enigmatic, farewell memo.

Thus did another top newspaper editor beat a path out of journalism. The ranks of recently resigned (or fired) editors don't begin to approach the multitudes who've lost their jobs in the industry's downturn of recent years (see "Is There Life After Journalism?" page 20), but the churn at the top of newspapers has been plentiful nevertheless. Before Lipinski, there was Amanda Bennett, who came and went at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2006. Rick Rodriguez abruptly left the Sacramento Bee in 2007. Steven A. Smith walked away in protest from Spokane's Spokesman-Review in October (followed a day later by the paper's top local editor, Carla Savalli). Tim Franklin quit in December after five years of running the Baltimore Sun. Sarah Jenkins, editor of Washington's Yakima Herald-Republic for 11 years, put an unusual exclamation point on her resignation; Jenkins left her paper in December to work as communications director for a convent.

My own newspaper, the Washington Post, long known for its stable leadership, has seen plenty of turnover at the top of its masthead as well in the past six months. Longtime Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. stepped down last fall, and Managing Editor Phil Bennett departed in January. Downie's replacement was Marcus Brauchli, who had himself resigned under pressure in early 2008 as managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, newly bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

That's nothing, of course, compared with the Los Angeles Times, which has had a veritable turnstile in its editor's office. In a bitter (and well chronicled) succession, John Carroll left the top job in 2005 after a series of clashes over Tribune-ordered cutbacks; he handed the post to Dean Baquet, who was forced out after a similar dispute in late 2006. Baquet was replaced by Trib veteran James O'Shea, who departed yes, after another tug-of-war with Tribune management in January 2008. The Times is now on its fourth editor, Russ Stanton, in a little over three years.

Anyone with even half a heart can understand how the pressures and conflicts of running a newsroom could drive an editor out the door. The industry is in the middle of transformational change as readers and advertisers gravitate to the Internet. As if that isn't enough, the nation is mired in a severe economic recession. The result has been massive cutbacks in staff and newshole. But coming as it does during the newspaper industry's dark hours, the editor exodus raises some questions. Doesn't losing the most experienced (and presumably most capable) manager in the midst of crisis just make things worse for those left behind? Or are change and a new vision good for all concerned?

"Do newspaper editors have a special obligation to stay in their depleted newsrooms and continue to fight?" asked former McClatchy Washington Editor (and now University of Southern California journalism professor) David Westphal in an online column prompted by Smith's resignation. "Or will newspapers and their web sites be better served by new leadership that's less wedded to the past and more inclined" to bring fresh ideas and approaches?

Let's give some sympathy where it's due: Editors are under more pressure than ever. Declining circulation and advertising have placed virtually every editor in the country in an ever-tightening vise, forcing them to choose among diminishing options. At the same time they're putting out a paper, most are managing the epochal transition to the Internet all the while with fewer people. It's a far different era than the one most senior editors came up in.

"It's a lot harder to be an editor today than it was years ago," says Rodriguez, 54, who ran the Bee's newsroom for nine years before his resignation. (He has since become a professor at Arizona State University.) "In the old days, you could take care of the journalism and you could be iconoclastic. You could object and complain. But editors today have so many more responsibilities. They have to be innovative. They're being told they have to monetize the product. It's a difficult job." Maybe, he suggests, "some of us old warriors don't have the same amount of fight in us as we once did."

Rodriguez says disagreements over the direction of the paper with Janis Heaphy, then-publisher of the McClatchy-owned Bee, led to his departure. Looking back, Rodriguez recognizes his own faults. "In retrospect, I wasn't changing quickly enough," he says. "I'm not laying everything on the company. I was not in tune with moving resources to the Web as quickly as I should have. My focus was mainly on the newspaper. As far as journalism goes, we did well. As far as embracing change, I probably could have done it quicker."

Like Rodriguez, Lipinski, 53, has been wary about criticizing her former employer. "I don't want to be one of those [editors] who leaves a paper with my hair on fire," she says.

She rejects portraying herself as a "journalistic martyr" but thinks the opposite extreme "a deserter" is an unfair characterization as well. She says her departure was part "push" and part "pull." The push came in the form of the Sam Zell-led takeover of Tribune Co. in 2007, which led to new demands for budget austerity, and the eventual replacement of Scott Smith as the Tribune's publisher. Smith had been a close ally of Lipinski's both were 30-year veterans of the paper and his departure in June was something of a last straw for her. The pull included Lipinski's desire to spend more time with her family (she and her husband have a 15-year-old daughter) and a promising job opportunity. Lipinski landed well: She's now vice president of community relations at the University of Chicago.

Walking away as opposed to continuing to fight the whittling of her newsroom "was the hardest decision I ever made, harder than the decision to get married or have a child," Lipinski says. "I've grown up as a journalist in this city. I loved that paper. I loved that newsroom. I worked with people whose babies I cradled within hours after their birth. It was my home and family for a long time."

But didn't leaving ultimately hurt the very thing she loved? Is the Tribune a better newspaper without her? "That's not for me to say," Lipinski demurs. "No one knows what would happen if an editor stays around. I don't know if it's better or worse now. I know it's different. It has to be different with a new editor because...every editor brings a different perspective to the job."

She reframes the question: "If I had stayed, would I have done things differently? Inevitably, I would have. Editing is an activist activity. It's about your style and your intellect. But I really feel it was time for some other folks to have their at-bat."

Other former editors aren't as circumspect as Lipinski. Smith, who left the independently owned Spokane paper in October, makes it clear that he departed in profound disagreement with the course of his newspaper (see The Beat, December/January). Smith walked out when Spokesman-Review Publisher W. Stacey Cowles insisted on laying off more than 20 percent of the newsroom staff in late September.

"Stacey Cowles is an honorable man and a terrific guy, but I disagreed with his strategy," says Smith, 58. "I felt the cuts were wildly excessive given our circumstances. They completely destroyed our ability to pursue a multiplatform strategy and to do the kind of journalism we could do. I understand the need to sustain profitability. I understand that during this incredibly deep newspaper depression, we needed to make cuts. But we could have done it in a less egregious way."

Cowles says Smith's resignation came after a long, grueling period for the paper that included the Spokesman-Review's controversial stories outing the city's gay mayor. "That story took a lot of guts and took its toll on everyone," Cowles says. As for Smith, Cowles adds, "I can't totally blame him for the decision he made" to resign. "Independent of other factors, it's just a plain tough business we're in, and it may be toughest from a news standpoint.... But we've got to carry on. I have a lot of respect for the folks who are staying in it and struggling to figure out a new model. The real value will come from people who wrestle with this issue and figure out ways to cope. Steve would be more valuable to us if he had stayed and helped us sort all this out."

Smith acknowledges that his resignation has had very little practical effect. Cowles implemented the layoffs that Smith refused to make, and Smith was quickly replaced as editor. At the moment, he's unemployed and considering his next move.

"There was no doubt in my mind that my leaving would not change anything, that it was never going to change things," Smith says. Even so, he adds, "It would have been immoral of me to stay and collect my sizable paycheck while so many young journalists with families were on the street. I'm not trying to make a protest or a larger statement. My loyalty is to journalism. Why should my loyalty to an organization supersede my loyalty to values that I have always tried to honor? There's no way I could stand up and say this newspaper will be better after this. It would have been a lie."

But opting out of the newsroom one professes to love does very little to help it, says Roger Plothow, editor and publisher of the independently owned Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He says newspapers are weakened when experienced editors like Smith give up in frustration. "There's never been a time when we've needed our best and brightest to stay with us more than right now," says Plothow, who knows Smith but stresses he's speaking generally. "We really do need people to stay and fight the good fight."

Plothow says he's been tempted to quit, too, when the stress of work left a knot in his stomach that wouldn't go away. "I've had the same thought: Wouldn't it be simpler to go teach a college class or do something else?" But he views that as "the easy way out. [Quitting] isn't going to change anything. It won't stop the need to stay profitable. We can't pretend that we should be above the whole idea of raw capitalism. That's just nonsense. And someone else is just going to step in" to replace an editor who leaves.

That has more or less been the net result of the long-running civil war over the Los Angeles Times, the largest of the embattled Tribune Co.'s newspapers. One by one, the Times' last three editors have stood up, sometimes very publicly, to contest Tribune's efforts to squeeze the paper. The resistance hasn't been futile the editors have succeeded in delaying some cuts over the years. But in each case, the clashes eventually led to the same conclusion: The editors eventually were fired or quit. And Tribune kept chopping.

John Carroll, who served as the Times' editor for five years (see "Let the Good Times Roll," September 2001), says he never regarded his resignation in 2005 as a protest or an act of martyrdom. Rather, he says, it was strategic: Carroll timed his departure so that his deputy, Dean Baquet, would be in a position to succeed him.

"I didn't believe [resigning] would convince anyone in Chicago to change their minds," says Carroll, 67, who's semi-retired and working on a book in Lexington, Kentucky. "If I had stayed, my guess is that it would have led to my firing and they wouldn't have taken" Baquet as his successor.

"I was just hoping that the good guys would outlast the bad guys," Carroll says. "I was hoping that Dean would have a longer shelf life and during that time there would be some changes that would bring more enlightened ownership and management of the paper. I was playing for time. I was hoping that during Dean's tenure the paper would change hands." Indeed, at one point, Carroll met with Eli Broad, the billionaire L.A. real-estate developer, to encourage Broad to buy the paper from Tribune.

Baquet, in fact, did become Carroll's successor, but the conflict with cost-cutters in Chicago only intensified. When Baquet repeatedly resisted Tribune Co.'s orders to reduce newsroom spending, he was fired just 16 months after replacing Carroll.

Baquet, 52, now the New York Times' Washington bureau chief, is reluctant to talk about his experiences in L.A. But he notes in an e-mail, "I was fighting some guys who had a 20-percent profit margin and were looking to cut for short-term gain, without a plan." That's a much different scenario, he notes, than an editor who has to make massive staff cuts because his paper is losing money. "I don't know what the hell I'd do in that case," he says. "Editors I respect are having to make different kinds of judgments, and I don't want to appear to be judging them."

Baquet's successor, former Chicago Tribune Managing Editor O'Shea, was viewed in some quarters of the Times' newsroom as a caretaker and perhaps worse a Chicago loyalist. But O'Shea proved almost as stubborn as Baquet about demands for more downsizing, and the fight was renewed.

For a time, O'Shea says he tried to convince the newspaper's then-publisher, David Hiller, to change the way management planned the paper's newsroom budget. He tried to be entrepreneurial and creative. At a time when the Times was under pressure to shed reporters and close bureaus, for example, he took some heat for creating a fashion section called Image, which quickly turned into a cash cow. "Some people criticized me in meetings," he recalls. "They wanted to know why we were putting so much money into covering shoes. And I told them: 'This is generating revenue to pay for the Baghdad bureau. You want me to cut that back?' "

But with Zell installing a new management team in late 2007, and with the financial pressure on the paper growing by the day, O'Shea finally reached his limit. Facing orders to carry out more cuts, O'Shea says he forced a confrontation over the issue. He stepped down in January 2008, only 14 months into the job."I didn't walk out of there willingly," he says.

"As a journalist, I had to take a stand," O'Shea says. "I had to say, 'This isn't right.' I owe that to my craft and my profession. I felt that as a person who had been handed this enormous opportunity and responsibility for a great paper, I had to fight for what was right for the paper regardless of the consequences. An editor is not supposed to say, 'We'll get by' and keep cutting the place. I felt it was the wrong way to go."

The continued infighting took its toll on the Times' staff. While the staff was encouraged when Carroll and then Baquet took their bold stands, several people say, the long-term effect was corrosive.

"At first, as the editors kept tumbling, there was a sense of pride in them for making the right stand, mixed with fear that someone eventually would do Chicago's bidding and start dismantling the place," says Scott Martelle, a former general assignment reporter at the paper. He remembers a sense of "impending doom and a growing anger" at the Tribune's management.

"It was a very poisonous atmosphere and a huge distraction from the tasks at hand," says Martelle, who was laid off and left the paper in September. "That said, I don't think the internal mood affected the caliber of the journalism. But the cuts and budget restrictions did. Fewer reporters means fewer people doing the kind of deep-dive reporting it takes to unscramble the world. And the cuts are continuing. It doesn't bode well. This situation takes bold vision and radical thought, and we're not seeing any of that."

For his part, O'Shea doesn't sound like a man with a lot of regret. "I don't feel too bad about anything, because I felt what I did was right," he says. "I felt that if I left, maybe nothing would change. But at least I put my voice on the record. I couldn't just sit there and watch people make the same mistakes over and over," he says, referring to Tribune Co. policies in Chicago and L.A. "I felt like I fulfilled my obligation to stand up for what's right for my newsroom, myself and my readers. Obviously, that didn't help the longevity of my career."

And now? Like many of the people in his former newsroom, O'Shea is out of a staff job. He has a fellowship for a semester at Harvard and a contract to write a book about the news industry. But, at 65, he recognizes that his newspaper days may be behind him, that the day he walked out of the Times may have been the last one he'll ever spend working in a newsroom. "I could make a lot of money telling people how to cut staff," he says. He's joking, of course. But he doesn't sound too happy about it.

Paul Farhi (farhip@washingtonpost.com), a Washington Post reporter, writes frequently about the media for the Post and AJR. He examined coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign in AJR's December/January issue.

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