Times Editor Announces Retirement

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Times Editor John S. Carroll will retire next month and be succeeded by Managing Editor Dean Baquet, the newspaper announced Wednesday.

Carroll’s departure comes after a five-year tenure marked by numerous journalism awards and a struggle with declining readership and flat revenue.

Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson announced the changes just before noon in a meeting with about 200 reporters and editors in The Times’ newsroom. He praised Carroll for leading an “incredibly special” period in the newspaper’s history -- a period that included 13 Pulitzer Prizes -- and said Baquet had the qualifications to continue that performance.


Carroll, 63, said a number of factors led him to retire, including the “desire to be a free man again after all these years editing three newspapers.” He also acknowledged being bothered by continuing pressure to cut his newsroom’s budget.

The promotion of the 48-year-old Baquet won wide praise within the Times newsroom and in the newspaper industry, where he was known first as a dogged investigative reporter, then as an innovative national editor of the New York Times.

The general good feeling over the succession was tempered by concerns inside and outside the Times newsroom about the key challenge facing the new editor: how to maintain the newspaper’s standing at a time when the Tribune Co. of Chicago, which owns The Times, continued to push for lower newsroom spending and bigger profit.

Baquet’s promotion to editor and executive vice president followed days of sometimes tense negotiations involving Baquet, Johnson and a corporate executive in Chicago. As recently as two weeks ago, Baquet threatened to leave the newspaper, according to several Times staffers who spoke to him. He told some of his top editors that a meeting with Tribune managers before the Fourth of July weekend had left him wondering whether he would have the freedom, and funds, needed to maintain the paper’s worldwide news operation.

Baquet eventually got the reassurances he wanted from the Times’ corporate parent, said some of his close associates.

“Have I had disagreements with Chicago and others about the paper? Sure,” Baquet said in his office Wednesday. “But obviously I feel like I am in sync enough with the people who own the joint” to have accepted the editor’s job.

Baquet said he might take a couple of months to choose his successor as managing editor, and that he would consider splitting the assignment among more than one editor.

Johnson said he would assume control of the newspaper’s opinion and editorial pages from the editor -- an arrangement Baquet said he supported. The change is designed to provide a clearer dividing line between the news and opinion sections.

Before buying the Los Angeles Times’ parent company, Times Mirror Co., in 2000, Tribune newspapers had a profit margin near 21%, but that slipped to 17.6% last year, said John Morton, a veteran newspaper analyst. Industry leader Gannett earned 27.7%. During the last 12 months, The Times also suffered its steepest circulation declines in at least 34 years, as daily sales fell 6.5% and Sunday’s paid readership plunged 7.9%.

Such pressures confront many other newspapers, but they make it particularly difficult for The Times to maintain its state, national and international coverage.

“The profit margin is going to have to be a lot higher than it is now before that pressure gets relieved,” Morton said. “Even with the cuts that have been made in The Times’ newsroom, I would think [the staff is] still ... too big by Tribune standards.”

Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, called it “somewhat miraculous and at least faintly encouraging that The Times has survived and thrived” while facing the corporate profit imperatives.

“But I’m under no illusion that if it’s profits vs. a deeper bench on the foreign staff, for instance, which way they will have to go. It will be with profits.”

Baquet told his staff that his goal was to make The Times “the best newspaper in America” and that its excellence would distinguish it from the growing ranks of information outlets, particularly on television and the Internet.

“Even though this is a rough time for newspapers, the solution is pretty easy,” he told the journalists gathered in the newsroom. “The solution is to do hard-hitting, tough reporting; to do great stories and great photography.”

Baquet represents a departure from Carroll on several counts. While Carroll operates with a genteel reserve, the outgoing Baquet likes to bounce around story ideas -- often sending journalists off with a hug or his trademark “Be good!”

Both men grew up in the South. Carroll is the son of a prominent newspaper editor, whereas Baquet was reared in a working-class section of New Orleans by parents who owned a neighborhood Creole restaurant. His promotion will make him the first African American to run a top-level American newspaper.

Baquet attended Columbia University in New York City but never graduated, having been swept up in the excitement of the news business after an internship at the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item.

He made his journalistic name in 1988 at the Chicago Tribune as part of a three-person team that won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting with stories about corruption in the Chicago City Council.

He was a finalist for another Pulitzer in 1994 for reports in the New York Times with another reporter that exposed fraud and mismanagement by a New York health insurer.

Baquet is the “very best person” for the editor’s job, Publisher Johnson told the staff Wednesday. He added that his new editor was “an exceptionally talented, dynamic and well-respected editor who has been essential to the progress of The Times during the last five years.”

Outgoing Editor Carroll came to The Times after a difficult period of ownership by Times Mirror, which culminated in an infamous incident in which the paper published a special edition of the Sunday magazine about the new Staples Center and agreed to share the profit with the arena owners. That conflict of interest hurt The Times’ credibility and reputation.

On arrival from his job as editor of the Times Mirror’s Baltimore Sun, Carroll quickly helped restore equilibrium. He made it clear that a wall would be maintained so that business arrangements didn’t influence the newspaper’s editorial decisions.

He soon consolidated the mismatched local news sections -- including those for Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties -- into a single California section that tried to draw readers’ interest to common issues in the region and state. The paper redesigned its features pages, added a section about the outdoors and eliminated a series of 14 community Our Times sections.

Carroll bucked The Times’ tradition by bringing in more top editors and writers from outside publications -- including Baquet in July 2000. In 2001 he hired columnist Steve Lopez, previously of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Time magazine, whose irreverent observations on California quickly won a following among readers.

Several Pulitzers during the Carroll era were for stories that the editor nurtured and then subjected to meticulous final editing. He could often be seen in his office on the newspaper’s third floor, hunched over a manuscript with a pencil or writing photo captions, a duty normally performed by copy editors.

Among the reports receiving such a personal touch were a series exposing the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of unsafe drugs and a series about patient abuse at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, both of which won Pulitzer Prizes.

Along with Carroll’s successes, The Times suffered its share of setbacks.

The editorial staff shrank about 10%, although at more than 1,000 it remains among the largest in the newspaper business. Stagnant revenue meant that the space in the paper for stories and photos also shrank -- reducing stock tables, prep sports coverage and space devoted to local news and entertainment.

The newspaper’s coverage had its share of critics, particularly when Carroll published an article, days before the California gubernatorial recall election, in which 16 women said they were groped or humiliated by Arnold Schwarzenegger. That report brought charges that Carroll and The Times had tried to rig the election to keep Gov. Gray Davis in power. About 1,000 readers canceled their subscriptions.

Carroll defended the articles, saying they were important so that readers could understand the character of the man they were considering to run state government.

Perhaps because of his normal reserve, Carroll’s occasional displays of discontent packed an extra wallop with his staff. The editor’s message was clear, for instance, when he complained in a memo to the newsroom that a story about a Texas abortion bill showed that a “liberal bias” had crept into some stories.

“I want everyone to know how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage,” Carroll wrote in the May 2003 memo, adding, “We are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of The Times.”

Carroll had been on the verge of taking over as head of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, a mid-career program at Harvard University, when he changed course to join The Times in 2000.

At the time he said he had hopes that his new bosses might allow some time off so he could take his boat “down the Chesapeake and knock around for a month.”

Carroll never got that chance. But as the end of the day neared Wednesday, he was talking again about the time off that awaited him. He said he looked forward to the chance to take some time to sail on Chesapeake Bay.