Dean Baquet emerged as the new leader of The New York Times newsroom Wednesday after the paper’s abrupt announcement that executive editor Jill Abramson would be “unexpectedly leaving” her position because of what publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. described as “an issue with management in the newsroom.”
Baquet will be the first African-American executive editor of The Times. His route to the paper’s top spot included a Pulitzer Prize and a stint leading The Los Angeles Times, which ended after Baquet dramatically refused to follow orders issued by management.
Baquet, who is from New Orleans, first came to The Times in 1990 from The Chicago Tribune. During his time in the Windy City, Baquet was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for “detailed reporting on the self-interest and waste that plague Chicago’s City Council.”
Baquet eventually rose to become national editor at The New York Times, but he left the paper in 2000 to become managing editor of The Los Angeles Times.
On the West Coast, Baquet was a popular figure in the newsroom. One former L.A. Times staffer who worked under Baquet told Business Insider that his tenure was a final moment of optimism for the paper, which has been rocked by economic woes and staff cuts in the past decade.
“He was never just the grey same old thing. When he became editor, there was a real sense of excitement, even from me, and I never get excited about newspaper editors, that he had it in him to do great things,” Baquet’s former colleague said.
Baquet arrived at the L.A. Times when the paper, like much of the journalism industry, was losing revenues due to the rise of the internet. The staffer said there was palpable tension between web and print staffers at the L.A. Times, but Baquet had the respect of both.
“Even though his background, his world was 100% traditional newspaper, he was always looking for ways to prod the newsroom forward,” said the staffer.
As evidence of Baquet’s desire to foster innovation at the L.A. Times, the staffer cited a committee he created, dubbed the Spring Street Project.
“The mandate was very much — find a bomb that can change what we do completely. Think big and crazy,” said the staffer, who was a member of the committee. “He also made a deliberate decision when he put the group together that, except for the chairs of it, everyone should be sub-masthead, sub-section ed level. He wanted it to be the youngish people coming up with ideas, not just defending turf.”
The Spring Street project ended up producing a memo in January 2007 that media blog Fishbowl LA described as a “scathing” assessment of the paper’s internet presence. It resulted in a promise to beef up the L.A. Times’ website.
“This was back in 2007, when newspapers were still debating, how much should we be on the web, what should a website be,” the staffer explained. “Frankly, the prevailing notion of the olde-timey newsroom was more or less, we shouldn’t have a website or if we do, let’s just put yesterday’s paper on it … So the stuff in that memo will sound very quaint now, but was a big deal at the time.”
However, Baquet was unable to see the fruits of his committee’s recommendations. In the fall of 2006, Baquet was fired from the L.A. Times after refusing to comply with an order to cut newsroom staff, a move that electrified the journalism world. Shortly before Baquet’s departure, the paper’s owners, Tribune Co., announced an attempt to sell the L.A. Times through an auction.
From the moment Baquet lost his job in Los Angeles, there was rampant speculation he would return to the New York Times. Abramson’s predecessor, Bill Keller, was not shy about his desire to have Baquet back at the paper. However, Baquet opted to remain in Los Angeles to see if a new owner managed to purchase the L.A. Times from Tribune.
“We have put things on hold until we see what happens with the auction,” Keller told Editor & Publisher in January 2007. “There is at least a large part of Dean that would like to finish what he started in L.A.”
However, the timeline for the auction began to stretch out and Baquet became antsy. On January 30, the New York Times announced he would be returning as the chief of its Washington D.C. bureau. Baquet attributed his decision to rejoin the paper to his eagerness to get back to work.
“This has been a long time for me to be outside a newsroom, and it’s starting to make me nuts. I wish The L.A. Times the best. I love it. I helped build it,” he said at the time.
Speculation Baquet might eventually become executive editor of the New York Times started almost immediately after he came back to the paper. In February 2007, just over three weeks after Baquet’s return was announced, the defunct media blog Jossip described him and Abramson as the leading contenders to eventually succeed Keller and jokingly compared them to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton due to the fact the selection of either of them would represent a first for the paper.
It was Abramson who got the nod when Keller stepped down from his post in 2011. Baquet followed in her footsteps as managing editor.
In his new position, Baquet once again is at the helm of a paper wrestling with the challenges new technology has posed for print-media outlets. Last week, a team of Times staffers, led by the publisher’s son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, released a report evaluating the paper’s digital strategy.
Much like the Spring Street committee memo commissioned by Baquet almost a decade ago at the L.A. Times, that report concluded the paper urgently needs to make changes to the way it approaches the web. However, when he announced Baquet’s promotion to the newsroom Wednesday, the elder Sulzberger said he was confident he had the right man for the job.
“There is no journalist in our newsroom or elsewhere better qualified to take on the responsibilities of executive editor at this time than Dean Baquet,” the publisher said. “He is an exceptional reporter and editor with impeccable news judgment who enjoys the confidence and support of his colleagues around the world and across the organisation.”
This time around, Baquet might even be willing to resort to layoffs if he thinks that’s what the paper needs. In 2007, when he returned to The Times, reporters at the paper asked about his rebellion in L..A. and whether he’d also refuse to follow orders if asked to cut staff in New York. He indicated he would be open to reducing the size of the newsroom if it was prudent and necessary for the survival of the paper.
“I got defiant when I thought it was mindless,” Baquet said of his experience in L.A. “I understand the reality of newspapers, but they shouldn’t eat themselves alive.”
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