Ex-LA Times Editor Dean Baquet Is Print Journalism's Shining Star

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) - It's easy to conclude that Dean Baquet, the former Los Angeles Times editor, has become print journalism's reigning shining star.

In these gloom-and-doom times, Baquet radiates optimism and a can-do spirit. Plus, he isn't afraid to speak his mind and take a stand. He is the newspaper biz's Man of the Moment.

Consider what took place at the Newhouse-School-sponsored breakfast Thursday in New York, in conjunction with the New Yorker and Conde Nast. New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta and audience members peppered Baquet and his fellow panelist, McClatchy Chief Executive Gary Pruitt, with questions surrounding the event's theme, "Do Newspapers Have a Future?"

(For the record, the answer to the question seemed to be a resounding Definitely! We hope.)

As soon as all the navel-gazing ended, spectators crowded around Baquet, now the New York Times' Washington bureau chief. Naturally, nosy journalists pestered him for provocative sound bites about the ever-deteriorating situation at his former employer, whose "LAT' handle might as well stand for "L.A. Titanic."

Meanwhile, former L.A. Times publisher Jeff Johnson walked over to Baquet, happily embraced him and asked, "How're you doing, man!" Baquet beamed.

Then I got a glimpse of Baquet's star power. An older gentleman made his way to the makeshift stage and eagerly shook his hand.

"I just wanted to meet you," said S.I. Newhouse himself, the all-father of the Newhouse family's Conde Nast empire. In the media business, patriarchs don't come any bigger than Mr. Newhouse.

Pruitt impressed the audience, speaking with confidence while unabashedly admitting that he, as much as anyone, didn't have a business strategy to ensure Internet growth. Still, this was Baquet's show.

While Johnson distinguished himself before he left the L.A. Times, too, Baquet got the splashiest headlines. He has said he departed because parent Tribune Co. had made deep cuts. Because Baquet essentially told his boss, Tribune, to take this job and shove it, he became a folk hero to many journalists.

Praise for Jim O'Shea

Baquet had warm words for James O'Shea, who succeeded him at the L.A. Times.

"I think he is doing a good job," Baquet told me. "He has encouraged them to do more stuff online, and he's held the place steady. They're still putting out a great paper."

The L.A. Times is "not a stagnant paper," he added. "They're tremendously competitive."

It's not hard to deduce that Baquet has complicated feelings about the L.A. Times. When he joined the paper a few years ago, he was the No. 2 editor to John Carroll, another dedicated easterner. Their hope was to build a newspaper that could someday be comparable to the industry's "real" Times, the Goliath in New York.

In 2004, the L.A. Times won five Pulitzer Prizes, proof that the Carroll-Baquet team could transform the paper. Then, Tribune began to make serious job cuts. Carroll retired in 2005 (he has been teaching at Harvard) and Baquet left last year. Today, Tribune is in play, with predictions that Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell will become the new owner.

At the panel discussion on Thursday, Auletta called Baquet "a victim of the civil war" at the L.A. Times.

Baquet noted that he had tried to work with his bosses. "I'm not opposed to making cuts," he said. "I'm a realist."

Thoughts on 'Grazergate'

I asked Johnson and Baquet what the Times had to do, short term, to survive. Not surprisingly, they both stressed the same word: innovate.

But the L.A. Times got into trouble recently by trying to be too daring. The paper invited famed Hollywood producer Brian Grazer to guest-edit its Current section, which presents outsiders' opinions.

When it surfaced that Grazer's publicist happened to be the girlfriend of Current editor Andres Martinez, all hell broke loose. The Times' publisher kiled the Grazer venture. Quickly, the whole guest-editing project appeared to be dead, too.

"I was in favor of it," Johnson told me. But he added that the project "was tough to do now. It was probably not an ideal environment to be experimenting."

Baquet wasn't reluctant to speak his mind. "I wouldn't have gone along with it," he said. The problem is that the guest editor automatically brings his or her special baggage and automatically invites conflict, he said.

The result is a downtrodden newsroom. Small wonder that, as Baquet put it, morale is "in the tank."

Martinez, for instance, "has gone out with his guns blazing," Johnson told me, nodding sympathetically. "This is a very personal issue for him."

Baquet tried to take the high road on Thursday morning. And why not? As he stressed at the breakfast, he's thrilled to have jumped off the Titanic in time to make it ashore with the Queen Mary.

"I've cut myself off from my old job," he insisted, though few in the audience probably believed he could be so hard-headed after such an emotionally wrenching experience.

When Auletta asked Baquet to discuss "Grazergate," as bloggers have begun calling the debacle, Baquet struck a rare disingenuous chord. He said he knew only what he read in the paper about it. Yeah, right. You see, journalism is such a gossipy world, I'd bet that Baquet could easily find out what Martinez had for breakfast on the day he left the L.A. Times.

"I know nobody believes me," Baquet said playfully.

Baquet grinned when he talked about running the New York Times' Washington bureau. "This is a blast," he said.

Specifically, he warmed to the task of "covering an administration that's struggling" with the war in Iraq, the attorney-general fiasco and other problems.

Mostly, he was pumped about chronicling "the most exciting presidential election in a generation."

Baquet looked relieved more than anything else. All he had to do now was work with reporters and editors, not the suits that drove him into a corner at the L.A. Times. Not that he needed to say so, but he made clear that he wasn't worried about facing the standard criticism that the New York Times gets from the right and, occasionally, from the left as well.

"To be frank," print journalism's shining star said, "I'm not that troubled about that."

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: How can the L.A. Times survive?

FRIDAY STORY OF THE WEEK: "Missing Middle" by Michael Massing (Columbia Journalism Review), a smart presentation about how the American media frequently neglect the heartland.

THE READERS RESPOND: "I know it's possible -- I think I did it myself -- to honestly report the views of people with whom you disagree personally. Unfortunately, many journalists are so hardened into a secular orientation that they can't perceive their own biases." David Awbrey

(Media Web appears on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays)

By Jon Friedman