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Dean Baquet defied a corporate effort that he said would diminish quality.

The Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet will step down from his post Friday after, he said, he was asked to resign for opposing additional staff reductions that he feared would threaten the quality of the newspaper.

Times Publisher David D. Hiller announced Tuesday that Baquet would be replaced by James E. O’Shea, currently managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and a 30-year news veteran with experience in national, foreign and investigative reporting.

Although Hiller acknowledged “significant differences” with the outgoing editor, he said that large job cuts were not certain and that he and Baquet had mutually agreed on the departure.

Baquet, the first African American to lead one of the top U.S. newspapers, stirred a national debate about the future of the struggling industry in September when he publicly defied attempts by Chicago-based Tribune Co. to reduce The Times’ editorial staff of 940.

Then-Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson joined Baquet in that stance, which cost Johnson his job early last month and created a cloud over the editor’s future at the nation’s fourth-largest daily newspaper, which has a weekday circulation of about 776,000, down from more than 1 million in 2000.

The management turmoil comes as Tribune seeks offers from potential buyers for the company or its parts, including The Times. Entertainment mogul David Geffen, the most aggressive of three local suitors for the paper, declined to comment Tuesday about the situation.

The change was not supposed to be announced until Thursday, but when word leaked Tuesday afternoon, Baquet hastily acknowledged he was leaving in an e-mail to the staff.

“I like to think that, no matter what happens from here on in, that I helped create a full-bodied debate about cuts in newsrooms and the impact that has on covering the news,” Baquet said in an interview. “And I think that’s important.”

The news was greeted with anger and sadness in The Times’ newsroom, interrupting preparations for election-night coverage. Several staff members wept. One confronted Hiller and demanded to know why a change had to be made as Tribune was fielding bids. Some in the newsroom were deeming the loss of Baquet “the election day massacre.”

Just weeks earlier, Baquet had received widespread support when more than 600 newsroom employees signed a petition sent to Tribune saying they backed their editor.

At about 3 p.m., Baquet addressed about 200 journalists gathered in one end of the third-floor newsroom. Standing on a desk so everyone could hear him, the 50-year-old editor acknowledged staff members’ feelings but urged them to keep working hard to preserve what he called “the best paper in the country.”

“I want to remind you that the people in this room are the people who are going to lead this paper forward,” the editor said, his voice thick with emotion. “You are the people who have the creativity, the smarts, the courage, the willingness to take risks to keep making the paper better.”

Just one month on the job after serving as publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Hiller called Tuesday a “difficult” day “that I hoped we would not see.” But he acknowledged that he and Baquet had come to an impasse. When Hiller stepped down from a desk after addressing editorial staffers, a faint hissing could be heard amid the light applause.

The decision about Baquet’s departure was made a little more than a week earlier, after the editor returned from a week in his native New Orleans. The editor visited his family there and gave a speech to the Associated Press Managing Editors, urging newsroom managers to be “feistier” and not so accepting of pressure for cutbacks.

Hiller told some associates that he was unhappy that the editor continued to make such a loud public case about cuts, a sensitive matter that he thought should be discussed in private.

On the Monday that Baquet returned to work, Oct. 30, the decision was made that he should step down as editor.

Word of Baquet’s exit first surfaced on the Wall Street Journal’s website early Tuesday afternoon.

Hiller rushed out of a lunch meeting with senior editors Tuesday after his secretary handed him a note. He looked up, hesitated, and then without explanation said: “Gotta go.”

Just minutes later, Baquet’s departure was confirmed.

“I can’t sugarcoat it,” Hiller said, addressing the editorial staff immediately after Baquet on Tuesday afternoon. “Part of it was a discussion of staffing. But I don’t think that is what all of this is about. This is about the future of our industry and whether we have one and whether it’s a good one.”

Proposed staff cuts

A budget that will be presented to Tribune executives Thursday in Chicago will include only staff reductions through attrition.

“We are not going to have any cuts before the end of the year,” Hiller said. “I don’t have a number in my head.”

But managers in The Times’ newsroom said that Tribune Publishing President Scott C. Smith had made it clear he would be back in the new year asking for cuts equivalent to what he suggested last year — perhaps more than 100 editorial positions.

Baquet had told associates he thought that big a hit would be problematic, particularly because the paper also hoped to shift a large number of employees to its website.

Like most newspapers, especially those in big cities, The Times has been losing readers of its print edition and advertising revenue has declined.

Although the paper hopes to report cash flow this year of $237 million, high margins of 20% a year or more have been sustained in recent years largely through cutbacks. Since Tribune acquired The Times as part of its acquisition of Times Mirror Co. six years ago, the paper’s workforce has been reduced to 2,800 employees, from 5,300. Tribune executives have been frustrated because they believed that managers at their most valuable property, The Times, did not have a sense of urgency about changes striking the newspaper industry.

Hiller, summing up his first month, e-mailed the staff Monday and emphasized that The Times needed new strategies because, as he wrote, “These marketplace changes are not temporary. They are permanent and continuing.”

He suggested reaching out to young families and Latinos to help increase the audience for the newspaper, its website and other “new products” that would appeal to advertisers.

Hiller acknowledged in his talk to the staff that Tuesday was “one of the stressful days that test my degree of happiness about being out here,” but he insisted “we are going to be successful.”

Baquet took the job in July of 2005, when Editor John S. Carroll stepped down, saying he had grown weary of cuts that reduced the newsroom staff by about 260 from its level in 2000 of approximately 1,200.

Carroll, now teaching journalism at Harvard University, had one of the sharpest reactions to Baquet’s departure.

“There’s a steely determination in Chicago to reduce The Times to mediocrity,” Carroll said. “It’s still a first-rate paper, but it’s teetering on the brink. The only hope I can see is a new owner.”

The activist group Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights demanded that Tribune rehire Baquet, back down from future cuts or sell the paper to local owners. Otherwise, it said, the public should cancel subscriptions by Jan. 1.

A notable reign

The paper won 13 Pulitzer Prizes during the five years with Carroll at the helm and Baquet as his managing editor. Baquet said he believed that during that time The Times became “the best investigative paper in the country — from foreign to national to local investigations — and I think I contributed something to that.”

He noted that all of the paper’s sections had been redesigned during that period and that the front page had “taken more risks” with stories written using a variety of styles and on a wider range of subjects.

Baquet is expected to be courted by two of the nation’s top newspapers, the New York Times, where he had served as national editor, and the Washington Post.

Baquet’s departure had been widely anticipated in recent weeks. Rumors had spread that some of his top editors would also leave the paper.

The Times’ two managing editors e-mailed the staff Tuesday afternoon to say they would remain on the job.

In their messages, Managing Editor Douglas Frantz called Baquet a “visionary and inspirational leader,” while Managing Editor Leo C. Wolinsky described the paper as “a public trust.” He concluded: “I intend to stay…. I hope you’ll join me.”
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