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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

Nothing but Fans   

New Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet is a popular figure with those who have worked with him.


By Rachel Smolkin
     

Among a habitually cynical lot, the effusions about the new editor of the Los Angeles Times are startling. Journalists who have worked closely with Dean P. Baquet--the Times' managing editor who will take over when John S. Carroll retires in mid-August--describe him as a reporter's editor, a whirlwind of ideas, energy and enthusiasm who is deeply curious about the world and intensely passionate about his craft.

"He's probably the most inspiring, energetic, exciting person I've ever worked for," says Jane Bornemeier, who served as Baquet's deputy when he was national editor at the New York Times. "He's quite special. He's very hard driving; he's a strong leader; the buck stops with him. On the other hand, he's very human; he cares about his people." Bornemeier, now director of television and radio news at the New York Times, says Baquet "never lets the pressure of the news of the day get to him and never lets it roll down to people below him. I had a blast working with him."

"The best editor that I've ever worked for," says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kevin Sack, who did so first at the New York Times and now at the L.A. Times as an Atlanta-based investigative reporter. "You always feel his presence backing you up when you're on a story... No matter what the crisis of the day is, whether there's some sort of turmoil in the newsroom or a major story breaking, he's able to corral the forces under him and get them moving in the right direction."

"Smart, engaging and relentlessly driven," says Jim Amoss, editor of New Orleans' Times-Picayune and a colleague of Baquet's during their early days at the city's now-defunct States-Item. Baquet "sees the world in terms of potential stories and is constantly spewing them out."

Baquet, 48, takes the helm of the L.A. Times during a high point in its journalistic standing but a turbulent time for the paper financially, as circulation drops and corporate parent Tribune Co. demands greater profitability.

The first African American journalist to lead a top U.S. newspaper, Baquet was born and raised in New Orleans and worked before school and on weekends cleaning his parents' Creole restaurant, Eddie's (gumbo was his favorite dish). He went to Columbia University in New York as an English major but got homesick and took an internship at his hometown's afternoon paper, the States-Item. Baquet soon left Columbia--without graduating--to take a full-time reporting job. He told the dean he'd finish college at Tulane University or somewhere else but never got around to it.

At the States-Item, later subsumed by the Times-Picayune, Baquet covered cops, courts, City Hall and then embarked on a triumphant career as an investigative reporter. In 1984, Baquet moved to the Chicago Tribune; four years later he led a team of reporters in revealing corruption in the Chicago City Council and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He joined the New York Times in 1990, pursuing local and then national investigative work, and became the paper's national editor in 1995.

In 2000, shortly after Carroll joined the L.A. Times, he persuaded Baquet to move himself, his wife and his then-10-year-old son to California. Baquet felt he could have more impact in L.A. than New York and wanted to make the West Coast Times edgier and more focused on investigative work.

He and Carroll did just that, forging a partnership that invigorated the paper. "Dean is a very strong leader in a very collegial way," Carroll says. "He's fun to work with." Baquet calls Carroll "not only the latest in a series of editors who looked after me and taught me a lot but somebody I'll always consider a close friend."

After assisting one of the industry's maestros in restoring the beleaguered broadsheet and leading it to 13 Pulitzers, Baquet finds himself in the top spot for the first time, challenged with satisfying profit demands while continuing to improve the Times.

"I'd like the paper to have more of a sense of California," Baquet says. "We have as strong a sense of place here as any paper in America. We're in the center of Hollywood. We're in a place that inspires books and movies. One of the most important things I can do for the paper is to have California show more in the pages of the paper, have Los Angeles have more of a place in the paper."

That means improving entertainment and metro coverage and evoking a sense of place in both series--such as a recent one on a young female boxer--and daily stories. Baquet says that involves not just resources, but emphasis. "You identify some of the writers who can wander around and really come up with stories that surprise people, and you let them loose and get out of their hair."

Carroll predicts Baquet will continue building local enterprise coverage, encouraging more journalism such as the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center series that exposed dangerous conditions for patients and won a 2005 Pulitzer gold medal for public service.

With the new job come budget and management responsibilities less stimulating than news coverage. Doyle McManus, the paper's Washington bureau chief, describes Baquet as a "very activist" managing editor. "He's on the phone to us in Washington five times a day on different parts of our report," McManus says. "The interesting challenge will be whether he can do all the things an editor in chief needs to do and keep up that intense, close-in engagement."

In addition to internal demands, Baquet will continue a troubled tango with the corporate offices and other Tribune papers. Since Tribune Co. acquired the family-owned paper in 2000, the Times has irked some in the chain with its fierce independence and resistance to sharing resources or using stories from sister papers.

Chicago Tribune Managing Editor James O'Shea, who met Baquet when they were colleagues at the Tribune, notes that Baquet knows the Tribune folks better than Carroll because of his background. "To be honest with you, I think Dean's philosophy [about using stories from sister papers] is probably closer to mine than John's was, and so I would assume you'd see a little more" content sharing.

"We'll probably do it a little more," Baquet agrees. "You've got to do it in a way that's about coverage, not about appeasing the company."

While Baquet lacks Carroll's 24 years of experience in a top editor's job and his expertise in budget wrangling, those who know him well don't underestimate him. "I think Dean has satisfied himself that the paper can continue to improve and be first-rate even though we're on a tight leash," Carroll says. "He's had some long discussions about that and has decided the paper can continue to improve for the foreseeable future."

Says the Times-Picayune's Amoss: "If anyone can balance corporate demands and the passion for journalistic excellence, Dean can."

"I can honestly say that he has the most remarkable and extraordinary combination of journalistic and managerial qualities I've seen in our business. The L.A. Times is very lucky, and I hope the Tribune Co. realizes that, too."