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L.A. Times Editor and Publisher Forced Out for Resisting Job Cuts: A Look at the Effects of Media Consolidation on America’s Newsrooms

StoryNovember 16, 2006
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In an effort to cut costs, the owners of many of the nation’s newspapers are slashing the amount of money spent on reporting, and laying off staff, most notably at the Los Angeles Times, where the paper’s publisher and its top editor, Dean Baquet, were ousted after publicly they defied calls by executives at Tribune Company to eliminate more newsroom positions. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In an effort to cut costs, the owners of many of the nation’s newspapers are slashing the amount of money spent on reporting, and laying off staff. The impact of these mass layoffs is expected to be widely felt. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post recently wrote, quote, “If this erosion continues, it would be bad news for serious journalism, and good news for corrupt politicians.” Kurtz points out that journalists played key roles in exposing recent Washington scandals, including those involving Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley.

AMY GOODMAN: On an almost daily basis, reports have emerged about more newspaper layoffs. On Tuesday, the executive editor of The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr., announced plans to shrink the newsroom staff as part of a major transformation of the paper. On Monday, the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota said it would cut 40 full-time positions at the paper. Last week, the new owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer forced out the paper’s editor, Amanda Bennett. Employees at the Inquirer fear the paper’s new owners will layoff as many as a third of its newsroom staff. In California, the owners of the Los Angeles Daily News recently laid off the paper’s publisher and 20 other employees. A hundred one jobs are being eliminated at the San Jose Mercury News, another 111 at the Dallas Morning News. The Cleveland Plain Dealer plans to cut 17 percent of its staff.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the most turmoil might be at the Los Angeles Times, the nation’s fourth-largest newspaper. Two months ago, the paper’s publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, and its top editor, Dean Baquet, publicly defied calls by executives at Tribune Company to eliminate more newsroom positions. Johnson was ousted in October. Baquet was forced out last week. A columnist for the trade magazine Editor & Publisher said about Baquet’s firing, “It is a sign that no editor who makes news first and big profits second is safe.”

AMY GOODMAN: One of the most outspoken critics of the changes at the Los Angeles Times has been Henry Weinstein, the paper’s legal affairs reporter. He has worked for the paper for 28 years. He, this week, came to New York to be awarded the John Chancellor Award for Excellence by Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Henry Weinstein joins us in our firehouse studio today. Welcome.

HENRY WEINSTEIN: It’s great to be here for the first time. As a regular listener to the show in Los Angeles and a longtime supporter of Pacifica, I’m very—it’s very good to be here. One of the first things I did when I moved to Los Angeles was to help put on a big fundraiser for Pacifica at the Los Angeles train station, where we honored the great journalist Carey McWilliams. So it’s particularly nice to be here today, particularly at a time when, as you were talking about, the situation for—a lot of dark clouds over the media these days. A lot of dark clouds.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Especially over newspapers, daily newspapers.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk a little bit about what is the mood right now at the _Times_’ staff?

HENRY WEINSTEIN: Well, I think that people were very angry about the fact that both our publisher and then, just last week, our editor, Dean Baquet, were shown the door. You know, sometimes when an executive gets fired, it’s because he’s failed to perform a good job, or there’s been some ethical lapse. Here, it was just the opposite of that. Dean Baquet has done a great job as an editor of the paper. You know, he was the managing editor or the editor over the past six years, a period where the Times, despite cutting 250 editorial staffers and having its marketing budget slashed, the paper won 13 Pulitzer Prizes.

Basically what he was shown the door for was drawing a line in the sand about staff cutbacks. And the reason he was drawing a line in the sand was because he’s concerned that if the size of our staff is reduced, it’s not going to be just a matter of job reduction, but it’s going to mean that we are going to reduce the number of stories we’re doing, and that’s going to be a detriment to the community end and the people that read us online around the world and around the country. So, it’s a serious issue at our paper. And if you look at all these other papers, reducing staff is going to mean reducing coverage and that’s going to create a news vacuum that’s important to citizens of this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the amazing thing is that in most of these—virtually all of these newspapers, it’s not a question that they’re not making money. I think, for instance, the Knight Ridder chain, before it went under, was making about a 15-or-more percent return. It’s not they’re not making enough money for the demands of the—especially the institutional shareholders and others, right?

HENRY WEINSTEIN: That’s absolutely right, Juan. Our paper made about a 20 percent rate of return last year. Clearly, a lot of corporations in this country would be very happy to make a 20 percent rate of return. But Wall Street, you know, considers newspapers to be a, quote/unquote, “mature industry.” A mature industry is one that they consider do not have a lot of near-term growth prospects, so they demand even higher rates of return. They like—some of them would like us to have 25 or 30 percent profit. Well, I suppose we could probably make that rate of profit if we reduced the size substantially again. But, I mean, I understand that we operate in a capitalist society and that newspapers have to make some money to grow and prosper.

On the other hand, newspapers have another role. They have a vital role in informing people in this country. That’s—you know, we have protection under the First Amendment, because it’s considered to have a vital role. And I think—and this paper’s already had cuts, you know, and the question is—I think Dean was trying to send an important message—is, where do you stop? Where do you stop?

And just to crystallize this issue in another way, on Dean’s last day, you know—it’s fairly typical in newsrooms when somebody leaves, they put out a mock front page sort of celebrating some of the person’s achievements and some humor. And there was a lot of that. But one thing was really—our sports columnist, Bill Plaschke, tried to cast this with an analogy by saying it was as if Baquet was being asked to cut his shortstop, his right fielder and his first baseman, and to play with six guys. And the question is, just where do you stop?

AMY GOODMAN: So the announcement came on the eve of the midterm election coverage at the Los Angeles Times, and he’s out right after.

HENRY WEINSTEIN: That’s correct. That is correct, yes. That was a very incredible day. I walked back from the cafeteria just after lunch. There was a bulletin moved on Dow Jones that he was out. A bunch of us walked down to his office, and we said, “Is this true?” And he said, “Yes, it’s true,” and he then put out an announcement to the staff. We had a staff meeting, and then people carried on and put out a very good election edition.

AMY GOODMAN: The Chicago Tribune has taken over your paper, the Tribune Company that owns the Chicago Tribune?

HENRY WEINSTEIN: Well, I mean, when you say—the Tribune bought the Los Angeles Times in 2000 in the aftermath of the Staples scandal, the Staples ethics scandal.

JUAN GONZALEZ: No, but not just the Times. The whole Times Mirror Company.

HENRY WEINSTEIN: No, no. They bought—Times Mirror owned a number of newspapers: Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant, Allentown’s paper, and then some other papers, and then the Tribune. Now, it’s very large. There’s a bunch of television stations. And so, now the whole company is on the block. You know, we’ve got bids from equity investors in various places. Gannett’s got an offer. There’s three billionaires in Los Angeles who have expressed interest in buying the newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: David Geffen, among them?

HENRY WEINSTEIN: David Geffen has said that he’s interested. We don’t know that he’s made a formal bid, but two other guys have gotten together: Ron Burkle, a supermarket mogul—

JUAN GONZALEZ: And personal friend of Bill Clinton.

HENRY WEINSTEIN:—and Eli Broad—and, yes, Burkle is a good friend of Bill Clinton and not a friend of one reporter, at least from the New York Post. So, the question is now, is, you know, what kind of owner will we have next? It seems like there will be a new owner. The paper could be—I mean, the entire company could be broken up in several directions, and the main thing I think people on the staff are concerned about is that we want to have an owner that’s interested in, you know, investing in the paper, trying to make the paper grow, improving our capacity on the internet, so we can better serve our readers.

AMY GOODMAN: Dean Baquet was one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the newspaper industry.

HENRY WEINSTEIN: He was the highest-ranking. I believe he was the—well, he was certainly the first African American to be the top editor at a major American newspaper that I’m aware of.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, there’s also a great more at the Denver Post.

HENRY WEINSTEIN: Right, right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, yeah, L.A. Times is a bigger city, yes.


AMY GOODMAN: Juan, as former president of National Association of Hispanic Journalists, you have been really honing in on, really focusing on the effect of media consolidation on people of color in this country around ownership, around who’s covered.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I mean, clearly, we just—we discussed last week the situation with NBC, where NBC, when its concentration announced that, since they own the Telemundo network, that they were eliminating local news programming in six cities—not news programming, but locally originated news programming in six cities. And we’re not talking small cities. We’re talking San Jose, Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and Denver. So we’re talking about huge cities, that they’re just going to no longer have a locally originated news program. So this is an enormous problem that we’re finding in terms of being able to get, at a time when the country’s changing dramatically, the sufficient level of staffing to be able to really get into so many of the different communities that we’re covering, whether it’s in TV or newspapers.

HENRY WEINSTEIN: I mean, I totally agree with you. I mean, I think it’s a very, very distressing development. It’s bad for the people in those individual communities, and collectively it’s bad for the nation. We need to have as many voices as we can. We need to have independent voices. That’s why I think this program plays such a vital role, particularly as the large television networks have way cut back on their coverage abroad. And anything that companies are doing that, you know, that is diminishing the amount of news is bad. And frankly, I think that, you know, perhaps the FCC ought to take a look at this.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re here for a major award. You’ve also won the Pulitzer Prize. You have been focusing on issues, local, national, international. What do you think are the key issues that are not being covered today, in this last minute?

HENRY WEINSTEIN: Well, as I said, I think that one of the—as you have diminished quality, I think—I mean, diminished staffing, you have particularly a lot of cutback in the coverage of foreign news. I mean, CBS used to have a vast amount of foreign coverage. I think they’re down to three or four bureaus. I’m very happy that our newspaper still has 22 foreign bureaus that I think provide just a vital service.

I mean, covering foreign news is very difficult. I have colleagues working in Baghdad and a lot of other war zones, places where I know you’ve been. It’s very, very difficult to cover these stories. It’s very expensive. There are security issues, communications issues with sat phones.

So—and you know, I always think that there’s never enough stories about poor people in this country. And to the extent that news budgets tend to get squeezed, then stories that are more difficult, investigative stories, are the ones that tend to get squeezed more. So it’s just a really bad development.

AMY GOODMAN: Death penalty, you’ve also covered—

HENRY WEINSTEIN: And then, I have written a lot on the death penalty, a subject that is not also nearly covered enough. So just in general, I think the less resources that you have, it tends to increase the tendency to cover the easier stories, and that’s not good for an individual community or for the country or the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Henry Weinstein, I want to thank you very much for being with us. And congratulations again for the John Chancellor Award. We won’t say “for Lifetime Achievement,” because we don’t want to suggest that in any way you are leaving journalism. Thank you for being here.

HENRY WEINSTEIN: Absolutely. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s nice to have you on this coast.

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