On his first day as editor of the Los Angeles Times, James E. O’Shea pledged to the newspaper’s staff Monday that he would fight to ensure that “this paper will remain a major force in American journalism.”
The former Chicago Tribune managing editor acknowledged that he was stepping into a difficult situation -- following popular Editor Dean Baquet, who was ousted last week after battling staff cuts proposed by Tribune Co., The Times’ Chicago-based corporate parent.
O’Shea asked about 200 journalists who gathered to hear him speak Monday afternoon in The Times newsroom to give him a chance and not view him as “the hatchet man from Chicago.”
The veteran journalist, who spent most of his career at the Chicago Tribune, paid tribute to his predecessor and to his new newspaper -- threatened like many other big-city dailies by pressure from the Internet and other new media.
O’Shea, 63, said he initially turned down The Times job and tried to persuade Tribune and Baquet, an old friend, to work out their differences.
“This really should be a happy and joyous day for me,” O’Shea said. “I’ve just been named editor of a great paper in a great city with a phenomenal staff. But I have to admit that it is a bittersweet experience.
“I came here to replace Dean Baquet, a good friend of mine and yours, a principled man, a great editor and someone who I am honored to call a colleague.”
Baquet, 50, left the paper Friday, about two months after his feud with Tribune management burst into public view.
On Monday, O’Shea entered a newsroom papered with photocopied pictures of Baquet. Many staffers wore images of Baquet’s smiling face on buttons that they had received before a tear-filled going-away party Friday night.
As he stood atop the same desk where the former editor delivered a farewell last week, O’Shea said he did not expect to make decisions about the size of The Times staff until next year. He said he was prepared to reject proposed reductions if he believed they would hurt the paper.
“If I think there is too much staff I will say so,” O’Shea said. “And if I think there is not enough, I will say that too.”
Times Managing Editor Doug Frantz, a friend of both the former and current editor, asked the staff to work with O’Shea.
“I hope that all of us here will give him the chance that he deserves because, frankly, he is the only chance that we have right now,” Frantz said.
O’Shea asked the staff to “focus our energy on putting out good newspapers and not focus so much of our energy on our woes.”
He praised The Times’ foreign, national and features coverage and said he needed more time to draw any conclusions about how the paper should cover its vast and complex base in Southern California.
The onetime Pentagon and economics reporter said he was putting his reputation on the line by taking The Times post. He said he was also making a “personal sacrifice” -- a reference to living apart from his wife, Nancy, who edits a magazine and annual reports for the Field Museum, Chicago’s museum of natural history.
O’Shea conceded that he did not know how long he would last in Los Angeles because of the uncertainty surrounding the paper, which is on the sales block along with the rest of Tribune.
“You all know ... sometime after the first of the year we are probably going to have new owners,” O’Shea said. “And that could be a lot better for everybody here. But don’t kid yourself, it could also be worse, a lot worse.”