Wednesday, July 21, was a sad day for journalism.
Let's cut to the chase: The newspaper business today lost one of its best editors--arguably its very best--when John Carroll stepped down at the Los Angeles Times.
In each of his incarnations, the name John S. Carroll has been synonymous with quality journalism.
This is not a period noted for its roster of great editors, towering figures like Ben Bradlee and Gene Patterson and Gene Roberts and Tom Winship. But Carroll belongs in that company. He hardly has the swagger of a Bradlee--Rachel Smolkin described Carroll as "courtly" in a piece on the Tribune Co. in AJR's December/January issue, and I know someone who calls him "opaque." But it's hard to think of anyone with as deep a commitment to excellence in journalism.
Carroll worked for Roberts at the Philadelphia Inquirer before moving on to the top editing position at Kentucky's Lexington Herald (now the Herald-Leader), the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times. It was at the Times that he performed some of his most impressive magic.
When Carroll arrived there in 2000, the Times was a deeply wounded institution. It had just gone through the awful Mark Willes era, which culminated in the Staples Center debacle, when the paper agreed to split the profits from a special magazine section with the section's subject.
After the Tribune Co. bought Times Mirror, the Times' parent company, Tribune had the good sense to enlist Carroll, who was about to take over Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, to put the pieces back together.
And he did, with a vengeance. When AJR senior writer Susan Paterno examined the paper the following year, the positive momentum was obvious (see "Let the Good Times Roll," September 2001).
There's no doubt that the significance of journalism prizes can be overestimated, but they are one indicator of a paper's quality. In the 83 years between the advent of the Pulitzer Prizes and Carroll's arrival, the Times won 25 Pulitzers. In the past five years, it won 13.
"Everywhere John goes, Pulitzers follow. He's not trying to win Pulitzers. He's just trying to put compelling stories in the paper," says Sheila Young, who spent 25 years at the Baltimore Sun, mostly as an editor, and is now director of development at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Carroll had the courage to put controversial journalism in the paper and to stand behind it when it came under fire for bogus reasons. In 2003, a week before the California recall election, the Times ran a piece on allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger had a history of groping women (see "The Women," December 2003/January 2004). When the critics, many of them with political axes to grind, howled in protest, Carroll hung tough. The journalism was sound, and important.
But while the Times regained its footing as one of the few national journalistic powerhouses, trouble lurked in the background. Carroll found himself constantly pushing back against cut-the-budget pressures. His ally in these struggles was Publisher John Puerner. The two men forged a strong bond, and Puerner did his best to protect the newsroom from the bean counters. When Puerner left the publisher's suite in June, the likelihood of Carroll's departure increased exponentially.
There apparently was no one incident that triggered Carroll's decision. Rather, it seems he just couldn't be sure that he would have the resources to put out the kind of paper he wanted and needed to.
If there's a silver lining, it's the fact that Dean Baquet, a superb journalist, is succeeding Carroll. Carroll hired Baquet away from the New York Times in 2000 to be the Times' managing editor, and the two functioned as a true team. Baquet is one of those rare figures in journalism about whom no one ever seems to speak a negative word.
Nevertheless, Baquet hardly has Carroll's experience when it comes to surviving budget wars. It's hard to see how he can prevail where Carroll couldn't. But Baquet does have Tribune Co. roots--he worked for the Chicago Tribune from 1984 until 1990--that may serve him well.
Let's all hope so.