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Dean Baquet’s Alamo

Blogging from the passenger terminal at LAX: Some have called it an "Alamo strategy." The editor of the L.A. Times, Dean Baquet, has boldly drawn a line in the sand against his own employers, saying he refuses to make $10 million in cuts being demanded by the Tribune Company.BaquetDean_L.jpg The general public may shrug it shoulders, but this battle is indeed of titanic proportions for journalists and for the future of journalism. Baquet has been joined in his public defiance by none other than publisher Jeff Johnson. And by an ad hoc group of 19 L.A. luminaries who suggest that the best thing to do is for the Tribune Co. to back off and maybe to relinquish control of the Times to local entrprenuers (several local billionaires including David Geffen have already volunteered to make the buy). The letter is a noble gesture but is likely to be taken pretty much the same way as if Davey Crockett had risen above the parapets to shout out to General Santa Ana: "Go Back to Mexico!" The suits at Tribune -- owner of ten newspapers, two dozen TV stations and the Chicago Cubs-- seem intent to come storming right over the wall, beheading Baquet and proceeding to further hack up the Times. They want to cut the current editorial staff of just under a thousand to about 850. If they get their way, the staff will be 30% smaller than six years ago. Is Baquet some sort of dinosaur, resisting sound business management? Hardly. Against pretty stiff odds he's trying to retain the integrity of a great newspaper now mortally threatened by -- well, no other way to say this other than -- greedy, short-sighted businessmen. The L.A. Times is hardly bleeding revenues. Most informed observers figure that it's raking in a luscious annual profit of about 20% against a billion dollars in income. That's a fabulous rate for any business, especially one of such scale. But the Chicago Tribune's sucking in profit at a staggering 30% annual rate, and that's what the suits want from the Times. That the ChiTown paper is decidedly a second-rate product seems of absolutely no concern. As it is, the Times is struggling to retain subscription levels. Has anyone figured out that by cutting into its news gathering capacity its local allure will only wane? This Thursday the Tribune board will be meeting and you can be sure that Baquet's heroic rebellion will be at the top of the agenda. And just as certainly, one imagines that the proposed remedies will be draconian -- corporations are not known to wink at full-scale, public mutiny. The founding family of the Times -- the Chandlers-- who still hold a chunk of stock have been proposing an alternate course for the company, trying to force a sell-off of the broadcast arm (in L.A. the gawdawful Channel 5). There's some slim hope that reason and good sense will prevail and bloodshed will be avoided. In the meantime, Baquet's gesture is a rare stand of courage in an industry consumed by fear, greed and cowardice. UPDATE: Times staffers circulate a petition supporting Baquet.

30 Responses to “Dean Baquet’s Alamo”

  1. Grumpy Old Man Says:

    One of the Monty Python films has a sketch in which Death shows up at an English country house. “You English are so pompous,” Death says, “and you Americans never stop talking.”

    Perhaps the LA Times is English, because it is insufferably pompous and has as much a liberal bias as it was right wing back in the day–but the bias is not presented in an interesting way. The Times has never figured out how to cover a decentralized conurbation like LA. New media and the failure of the young to acquire the newspaper habit are also taking their toll.

    Firing writers is the wrong way to go, though. They have to figure out a way to cover Baldwin Park, West Covina, Torrance, and Fullerton.

    Prediction: the bleeding won’t stop, and the Trib will sell on the downward curve.

  2. bunkerbuster Says:

    The calls for $10 million in cuts is just the beginning of Tribune’s problems.

    They now face a shareholder’s lawsuit for turning down the bids by Geffen, et. al. And who can blame them, the shares are down 18 percent in the past year and profit slid 62 percent in the second quarter.

    I wonder, though, how Geffen or any other buyers plan to keep the paper alive in the Internet age without cutting back severely.

  3. Balthazar Getty Says:

    The Times can make strategic cuts without harming its journalism. Baquet is just being an obstructionist. The Times, based in Los Angeles, doesn’t need a large presence in Washingon and it certainly doesn’t need any reporters in Houston, Denver and New York, where it currently has highly paid journalists. And close those foreign bureaus! Anyone can find international news via wire services, the New York Times and other Internet services.

    There’s no reason for the Times to duplicate their efforts. But, it should do a better job covering Southern California, which it always has struggled with in its metro sections.

  4. James Brett Says:

    Something has to happen before I will go back to the Times. The West deserves a newspaper of record and it used to be the Times. Tribune sell! You have done enough damage.

  5. Luke Annenberg Says:

    I’m a business/journalism double major at a local college of some note. And while I would like to agree with everything Marc Cooper writes here, being a fan of newspapers and dinosaurs alike, as a student of market forces, I cannot. I read every word of The Times, as I have for the past five years, and let me tell you there are dozens of bylines that appear once a year at the most. I see fluff in the Calendar, Business and Opinion sections. And the Sunday magazine, what is that anyways? Would anyone notice if it vanished? I could easily cut 200 jobs and the paper would be stronger than it is today. Dean is my hero, too–up to a point. But he should be waging his fights in the board rooms and not stubbornly digging in PR pieces in his own paper. What was he doing conspiring with the business leaders who signed the letter at an elitist club anyways? Did you notice how we learned that detail from the Wall Street Journal? His own paper overlooked that morsel…And does anyone in their right mind think a Ron Burkle, Eli Broad or David Geffen would not cut the waste on their way to interfering with the editorial product? My advice to Dean is to get off the phone, cancel all of your lunch stratgey sessions, and start talking to your staff about working harder and covering Los Angeles and its communities.

  6. Mavis Beacon Says:

    Has a Joel Stein ever looked so silly as yesterday when his gaggy column was perched under two columns arguing over the soul of the paper?

    I’m no journalist or newspaper expert, but it seems to me that having redundancy abroad or in other states increases the number, type, and perspective of the stories Americans have access to.

    Luke Annenberg, what strikes you as fluff might appeal to others. Newspapers are struggling to find younger readers and maybe some of those extraneous peices in the Calendar section appeal to them. I don’t imagine you’ve done the research to know for sure.

    It strikes me that Tribune is behaving like a company with a monopoly – it’s not worried about devaluing the product because it’s a one paper town. Now I know not everybody is online, but the more time I spend learning about my world online, the less I need the LA Times. Maybe I’m the only one, but if there comes a time when national stories are from the AP or other papers and only local stories are from the LA Times, well, I’m cancelling my subscription.

  7. jcummings Says:

    Journalism and market forces should not be mixed. Journalsm is a public trust. Yes, papers have to stay in business, but owned by multinationals and/or conglomerates they can surely afford, in times of loss to cut CEO pay, not fire wrorkers. Market forces are bullshit anyhow – simply a code word for “enriching the bosses.”

  8. someonewhoknows Says:

    The problem with Luke’s analysis — a common one — is that he grossly overestimates the amount of dead weight at The Times. I’m intimately familiar with the staff there, and I can tell you, the number of people doing Velvet Coffin style long-term “projects” equals — maybe — two staff positions. Usually their work is the stuff that wins the Pulitzers, but okay, say you fire them. And say you fire the “fluff” writers. That’s the stuff pretty much everybody reads but you, but okay, unload them. Have you ever looked at those bylines? The pure “features” staff — meaning the people not covering beats on the non-hard-news sections — equals about four positions. No kidding. The magazine has a staff of about 10 people, and that includes the woman who answers the phone there. And if you kill it, you lose a major chunk of the national advertising revenue that comes in to the paper. So where else? WAshington? That staff is down to the bone at a time when the power of propaganda has never been greater. The foreign bureaus? Do you have any idea how many Southern Californians have roots, business interests, families in other countries? Local coverage? That was the first thing Tribune gutted. Covering this region is costly and labor intensive. It’s just a fact.

  9. Michael Balter Says:

    “And close those foreign bureaus! Anyone can find international news via wire services, the New York Times and other Internet services.

    There’s no reason for the Times to duplicate their efforts.”

    I would like to think that this person is being sarcastic but fear they are serious. What Mavis said.

  10. rosedog Says:

    This is indeed an amazing drama that’s been playing out. Even separate and apart from the fact that, as Marc mentions, the fight goes to the heart of all the issues having to do with the future of print journalism in this country (and electronic journalism, while we’re at it, as the issues and problems are nearly identical in the broad view), it also speaks to the general notion of enlightened capitalism versus…..well….greed.

    BTW, I recommend yesterday’s NPR piece on the subject for a quick, painless overview.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6105367

  11. richard locicero Says:

    And the problem just isn’t the LAT. Those wondeful folks at NEW TIMES are showing what hicks they can be when they gutted the original alternative paper the VILLAGE VOICE (I mean, really, dumping Robert Christgau and James Ridgeway!) because they do things differently in Phoenix. The WEEKLY will soon be the “Weakly” and then what?

    To those who argue that the TIMES is overstuffed a simple question. How much is enough? Most businesses would cream to have a 20% profit margin. You don’t have to go to Chicago to see thirty per cent margins. Just look at Long Beach, or the Valley. You like the way the DAILY NEWS covers things? Or go up to Santa Barbara. Want that to happen here?

    Yeah, I’ve heard all about the “Velvet Coffin”. But the late Otis Chandler had a vision. He wanted the LAT to ba national paper, like the WaPo and NYT. The paper of record for the fastest growing region of the country with the influence that went with that. Sure it had a lot of bureaus. It was also a paper that always had some story on page one you didn’t get anywhere else and reporters who knew their stuff. Was there a better Washington bureau than the one Jack Nelson headed? And, forgotten in the Woodstein hype, the TIMES was the only other paper to really go after Watergate.

    Even after the greedy mothers that Otis had as relatives forced him out (too liberal you know) the paper still shined. And the Argument abot the “Staples” fiasco really looks petty in light of the NYT’s Judith Miller problem. Kinda like Clinton’s lies versus Bushes. And all those Pulitzers. The Trib (Col McCorack’s “World Greated Newspaper”) could only wish.

    Sure the Trib people won’t sell. They, after all, do have a monopoly. And until Craigslist guts their classified department that’s the way it will be. What you think you live in a democracy where informed voters make reasoned choices? HA! HA! HA!

  12. Balthazar Getty Says:

    The Times does a so-so job covering Southern California, and it hasn’t really improved as the Tribune ownership eliminated local editions and stripped down the local-news staff. Under John Carroll, the priority became national-impact and international stories that impress Pulitzer judges and his East Coast journalism peers but don’t shed light on what’s going on in Torrance or Irwindale.

    By the Times’ own account, it has 11 national bureaus, 22 foreign bureaus and four California bureaus. It has more reporters in Atlanta than Altadena. These outlying bureaus don’t fulfill the Times’ local news mission and they are expensive to operate.

    The Times could preserve and even enhance local news coverage, while satisfying Tribune profit demands, by eliminating these bureaus. It might bruise the egos of some Times reporters and editors who view the newspaper as a world-class institution, but its readers live in Southern California, not Berlin, Jakarta or even Chico.

    It’s time to be realistic about what the Times can and can’t do.

  13. rosedog Says:

    They don’t read the LA Times in Chico????? Damn. Who knew?

    But, my dear…um… Mr. Getty, you certainly have a point about the Atlanta bureau—both literally and metaphorically.

  14. Stevez Says:

    This’d all be quite moving if it weren’t about the goddam boring-as-eight-miles-of-freeway clueless LA Times, least insightful major city paper in America.

  15. Michael Green Says:

    The Times has its problems–Baquet has his problems–but this isn’t just a stand for better journalism. It’s also a stand for intelligent management. The Times makes a huge profit as it is. The Tribune Company can’t get its own house in order and wants to bleed a cash cow. Now, I wonder how often The Tribune’s editorial page has questioned the actions of government and business in doing just the sort of thing its parent company now seeks to do to The Times?

  16. Mark Schubb Says:

    It’s hard to resist an open opportunity to respond to Gettys and Annenburgs who speak on behalf of corporate profits… Ain’t america great?

    Others have made great points, but I’d add that
    Los Angeles requires a national paper with an international scope AND with great local coverage. It’s not an “either or” proposition. More than any US metropolis, LA is both a national and international city. Almost everyone has roots and family in others states, or in other countries and is a hub for commerce, finance, and immigration for the entire Pacific Rim and for nations to the south.

    The NY Times has it merits (excellent writing for one) but also suffers from the gross myopia and arrogance typical to a narrow strata of a small geographic slice of Manhattan. It will be a sad day for journalism — and citizenship — when the LA Times surrenders world and national reporting to leave us entirely at the whim of the NYT and the inside-the-beltway Washington Post. Fact is, there is life and culture and politics west of the Mississippi – and we have a different national perspective from this western viewpoint.

    The LAT has had a lot of difficulty providing adequate local coverage. They’ve done some awesome investigative reporting on local institutions. Stellar work. But LA is a complicated collection of cities and they do a poor job of covering local government and politics. But cutting non-local bureaus and other staff will not help one bit to improve local coverage. Their research has likely shown (again and again) that there is an ever-narrowing readership for detailed news that serves local citizenship. Until someone proves some fresh approach to local coverage will generate more subscribers or advertisers, that’s unlikely to change.

    Sad thing is, if the LA Times really was A BUSINESS, instead of just one“asset” in some out of town media corporation, good managers would not be trying to squeeze out more profit. They’d take a big chunk of that hugely-successful 20% yearly operating surplus and plow it into new initiatives and experiments that might insure the future viability of the whole business.

    Instead, these corporate weasels see no real future in newspapers, despite any rhetoric to the contrary, so their primary plan for this “asset” is to squeeze out as much juice as possible before it runs completely dry.

    And yes, New Times is about to do the same to LA Weekly, only twenty or thirty times faster, and with far fewer people paying any attention.

    Banquet & Johnson are heroes for taking so public a stand.

  17. richard locicero Says:

    Those complaining about local coverage seem to forget that most of passes for local coverage in other papers is fluff. I live in Orange County and the Vaunted REGISTER local coverage is so much puffery. The OC WEEKLY got most of the big stories – like the Dave Garofolo scandal in Huntington Beach. That was picked up after Scott Moxley wrote about the shenanigans of the HB Councilman week after week. I wonder what the geniuses in Phoenix will do about that! Probably hire Jill Stewart!

  18. bunkerbuster Says:

    The most important issue here isn’t whether the Tribune’s owners are greedy or whether it’s better to focus on local, regional or international news.

    The real problem is how to get Americans more interested in staying informed. Forget about the LA Times washout, the election of W as president is the strongest evidence out there that a growing segment of Americans choose to stay in the dark about what’s actually happening in the world.

    Newspaper journalism is under assault primarily from consumer culture. Market forces are merely acting as enforcers of the trend.

    To be sure, Tribune management is somewhat irresponsible, but have faith, market forces are having their way with them too. As individuals, they may parachute out and move on to greener pastures, but the company won’t if it stays on its current path.

    Market forces will not correct the bigger problems facing newspaper journalism. The LA Times has been “dying” and in the process of being “gutted” for as long as I can remember, and I danced to Oingo Boingo at Madame Wong’s West, if you need a reference to date me.

    My third-baked theory is that everything’s going online and the newspaper as we know it cannot survive that. The benefit of “community” derived from broadly-based regional and local newspapers will be replaced with the benefit of communities of association, such as the one at marccooper.com.

    (As an aside, my offer still stands to become a paying subscriber if and when Marc severs his pact with the execrable Pajama boys.)

    And yes, the velvet coffin will have to find a new home outside the daily newspaper and that will be for the greater good of mankind.

  19. reg Says:

    My pulp fiction takes the form of the San Francisco Chronicle. Boy, is that a piece of shit. (No need for a “?” at the end of that sentence, despite it’s starting with “is”.) Except for Jon Carroll and The Bad Reporter. They’re both great. (Carrol’s only periodically political and Bad Reporter’s completely nuts, so no false expectations.) Check ‘em out at the website.

  20. reg Says:

    oh, that’s sfgate.com, i think

  21. Michael Balter Says:

    “It might bruise the egos of some Times reporters and editors who view the newspaper as a world-class institution, but its readers live in Southern California, not Berlin, Jakarta or even Chico.”

    Right on, what happens in Berlin and Jakarta has absolutely no relevance at all to the lives of Southern Californians. Nor what happens in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or any of those funny foreign lands, right? Thanks for a nice demonstration of the provincialism that makes people think we can invade and occupy a country without knowing anything about it or its people.

  22. Sergio Says:

    Hi erudite people, my second post here!

    I first read the LA Times at age 6 in 1969, and was PRIVILEGED to watch it undergo a flowering of journalism during the 1970s under Otis Chandler’s tutelage. As a literate, politicized kid (I lived in Chile in 1971-73 just like MC), I was amazed at how the Times allowed long, wordy, in-depth articles, and did not constantly parrot East Coast corporate right wing causes or even Israeli propaganda; Conrad’s cartoons alone stood for so much. The paper was fun: sports, led by the incomparable Jim Murray; The Food Section, with World-foodie Jonathan Gold before he left for the LA Weekly; whimsical Jack Smith; the hip comics page; the brilliant Howard Rosenberg on TV; the cool “Pop Eye”; and Robert Hilburn’s discussion-provoking ramblings in the Calendar section. As a teen my family moved to the “OC” and thank GOD we read the Times compared to the pathetic, shrill OC Register.

    When I took a mass media course at UC Irvine I marveled at the Times’ attempts at Pacific Rim/ “Third World” perspective, which actually paid some attention to us Latinos compared to the East Coast blowhards. The late Frank Del Olmo ‘s columns were always good reads.

    I agree with the earlier post about NYT and Wash Post insularity. These papers supported the genocidal attack on Iraq, which the LA Times did not. I’d like to think this has to do with the Times seeing LA as a 21st century world city –and reflecting that perspective–while the NYT and WP are bastions of dated Cold War US imperial primacy.

    Sadly, as the 1990s passed the Times lost its lustre, and then came the buyout by the dinosaur (“Dewey defeats Truman”? Please!) Chicago Tribune. Many good reporters left the paper, like Robert Reich, Robert Scheer, Robin Wright, Brian Lowry, and the late Bella Stumbo, who interviewed me as a kid returning from Chile in 1973. And losing Manohla Dargis in LA was a crying shame!

    Regarding “local coverage”; that is not the issue. I feel it is about world coverage with a local bent. Read the OC Register to see how insular, homogenized and xenophobic “ local” papers can be. Los Angeles needs a world-class paper to teach people about the world (I am an idealist, deal with it) and help prepare us for a new century, not the ignorant, historically amnesiac media spun by corporate USA under GW Bush.

    Unlike many of you, my relationship with the LA Times has been ongoing for 37 years, longer than girlfriends, jobs, homes, and hairstyles. I read it less, its journalistic quality is faded; yet sometimes resources are spent on trenchant investigative stories and supporting people like Pulitzer Prize-winning Carolyn Cole: she’s a masterful, humanistic photojournalist, and took a stand against Israeli atrocities in Jerusalem with her pictures. Let’s see THAT in the NY Times. I wish the editor and publisher of the LA Times –always “The Times” for me– the best.

    Thank you Marc for your post recent posts about torture and Iraq, y siempre por Chile.

  23. Grumpy Old Man Says:

    Sergio’s got a point: “world coverage with a local bent.”

    You’d think with our diaspora populations there’d be in depth coverage at least of Iran, Korea, China and Vietnam. All of these have undergone enormous changes, about which most of us really don’t have an inkling, and yet we need to evaluate questions of trade, culture, religion, war and peace.

    Just take Iran. I have enough Iranian friends to know the stuff about the return of the 12th Imam and whether Ahmadinejad was at the Embassy is interesting but only a fraction of what changes are going on there. How did guys like Rafsanjani get so rich? What are there interests? How are women being educated there these days (it’s no Saudi Arabia in that respect)? What books are best sellers? How many scientists are there–do they want to leave or make nukes? If unemployment is really over 20%, tell us about the underground economy that must exist. Yadda yadda.

    There are educated and increasingly wealthy communities who still have a great interest in those places (as should the rest of us).

    You won’t learn about it in the Whale, foreign bureaux or not. Unfortunately not in many places, except the New Yorker, now and then.

  24. Forward to Yesterday - Bob Westal Classic Film, Movie, & Television Blog Says:

    [...] Also, from a couple of days back, Marc Cooper has some thoughts on the quite possibly doomed attempts to save the L.A. Times from becoming a second rate paper. Where there’s life, there’s hope, I guess. Since then, there have been offers to buy the paper from wealthy Angelenos, but apparently Tribune is determined the ruin the paper on its own. [...]

  25. richard locicero Says:

    Reg how can you read the “Comical” now that Herb Caen, Art Hoppe and Charles MCabe are gone?

  26. Edmund Davis-Quinn Says:

    As a former reader of the LA Times, around 5 years ago when I lived in Claremont, CA, I was wondering why the paper seemed weaker when I bought a copy in San Diego.

    The LA metropolis is absolutely huge and the Tribune company should be ecstatic with a 20% profit margin in the very difficult newspaper industry.

    There are very few good newspapers left in this country, and the LA Times was one of them … LA is a simply massive metropolis of maybe 30 million if you count SB, LA and Orange Counties.

    If anything the paper needs to hire more reporters and get stronger.

    Edmund Davis-Quinn
    subscriber to LA Times for 2 years: 2000-2001

  27. reg Says:

    Reg how can you read the “Comical” now that Herb Caen, Art Hoppe and Charles MCabe are gone? \

    As I said, Jon Carrol and Bad Reporter. Bad Reporter’s actually funnier than Hoppe was when he’d devolved into recycling the same bits (although he’s not far from reaching that point himself) and Jon Carroll is almost as literate as McCabe, especially given the generational differnce.. He, of course, hasn’t decided to hand himself over to the bottle, so he’s not quite as much fun to read. The “New” Herb – Leah Garchick – is a drag. What’s most depressing isn’t that the cream of the Chron’s crop are all dead, but that as a “major” daily in what it’s fair to call a major city with a pretty well-educated, politicized and cultured populace it’s always been read mostly for entertainment.

  28. Marc Cooper » Blog Archive » LATimes: The Duck Liver Hits the Fan Says:

    [...] A few weeks back, quoting a well-connected observer, I remarked on the “alamo strategy” then being wielded by the editor and the publisher of the L.A. Times. Dean Baquet and Jeff Johnson, respectively, had been staging a very public mutiny against the suits at the parent Tribune Company, saying they would refuse to implement perhaps another $10 million in cuts at the Times. [...]

  29. marc Says:

    The LA Times is no longer a great newspaper in my opinion. It has lost much of its journalistic integrity to politically correct spin in the last 20 years or so.

    The Times has sold its objective soul and become a propagandist on so many occasions that it no longer realizes how corrupt and double minded it has become. Just because “everyone else is doing it” doesn’t make it alright. All the more reason to not follow the herd.

    It still occasionally puts out some good work but in my opinion it is has become a non objective propagandist rag.

    That’s the reason I won’t buy it anymore … and I know a lot of people who feel that way. Frankly I don’t care if the paper goes under … It is sad that their is barely any media anymore that have not become either entertainment or propagandists… Objective journalism has become a misnomer in our day and age.

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