Baquet Takes Top Job at 'Los Angeles Times'

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Next month, Dean Baquet will take over as editor and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Times — making the Times the largest newspaper in the United States with an African American at the helm. Ed Gordon talks with Baquet about his rise from a police reporter in New Orleans to the top of the journalism game, and what he expects to accomplish as editor of one of the nation's leading newspapers.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Last week, Dean Baquet, was named editor and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Times making him the first African-American to head a major newspaper in this country. Baquet began his career as a reporter in New Orleans in the late '70s. In 1988, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for the Chicago Tribune's coverage of city hall corruption. Baquet takes over at the nation's second-largest newspaper as it struggles with decreased circulation and with the threat of major budget cuts. Despite it all, Baquet says he's excited about his new job.

Mr. DEAN BAQUET (Editor, Executive Vice President, Los Angeles Times): It's a great time to run a newspaper and I think I'm running one of the best newspapers in America.

GORDON: Now some would suggest that maybe, outside of just the opportunity to do it, it isn't such a great time to run a newspaper. We are seeing the changing face of media, quite frankly, across the board from television, to radio to newspapers. Do you see that as just the idea of being able to mold whatever newspapers are going to morph into?

Mr. BAQUET: Yeah. But I also think that newspapers will remain vital to people. It may be that newspaper Web sites become a bigger part of the equation than they have been in the past. But I think if you look at the information that's out there on the Web and in other places, there's a cacophony, there's a lot of noise, and I think newspapers will remain or their offspring in Web sites or whatever-other new technology--will remain the place where you can go to find out what happened yesterday and to understand it better. And I think that's our challenge, to hold onto that, to not fall into too many fads and to keep doing what we do best, while also being willing to change.

GORDON: Dean, obviously, you walk into what some see as a firestorm, if you will: the unexpected resignation of John Carroll, the man who preceded you. Some suggest his resignation, in part, was because he saw that the belt-tightening that is happening to all of us at the Los Angeles Times, in his opinion, was unmanageable. How do you see that?

Mr. BAQUET: Well, I think that's part of it and what John has said is that that's one of a lot of reasons why he left the paper. I think it would be a mistake to assume that John left in protest. John and I are very close. We talk probably more than we talk to each other's wives. And I can tell you, it's not the only reason he left. He left because he's been running newspapers--this is his third newspaper--he's been running newspapers for more than two decades, and I think he wanted to do something different. I feel that the two of us have spent--we've been partners for the last five years. I know all of the things we've assembled. I know what has to be protected. I don't think of it as much of a firestorm as other people do. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but that's not the way I see it.

GORDON: Let me ask you, Dean. It's always interesting when African-Americans take the helm of something, particularly something as prestigious as this. And you being the person who will sit as the captain of this maiden voyage, how much pressure do you feel, if any, being the first African-American to head this post?

Mr. BAQUET: You know, I feel a lot pressure from a lot of places. I don't feel any particular pressure in that regard. I mean, I think the fact that I'm the first black editor of one of the three or four big great American newspapers is terrific. I think it's part--it gives me some perspective. It lets me think about a lot of important aspects of coverage in the newspaper. I don't feel anymore pressure because of it. Maybe that's because it's what--it's been part of my life since I started in newspapers when I was 19 years old.

GORDON: So more pride than pressure?

Mr. BAQUET: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. You're better at this than I am. That's good.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, though. There will be certain expectations that will be placed upon you from African-Americans who will expect certain things from an African-American who sits in that seat: perhaps wider and better coverage of people of color; perhaps the idea of putting certain things on the map that would not have, quite frankly, been there had a white male been running the institution. Do you look forward to being able to do that?

Mr. BAQUET: I think that there's going to be a lot pressure on the LA Times to cover a lot of different local communities differently than it has in the past. And to be perfectly honest, I think that there will be a lot of instances in which I will resist that kind of pressure; some cases in which I'll listen to it and I think people will have a point. But I happen to be in charge of covering a community that's the most varied community in America, not only African-Americans, but Asian-Americans, Latinos and every other group that you can imagine in the world is represented in huge numbers in Los Angeles. And I think that's got to be a gigantic part of the way we cover the community. And I suspect I'm going to get phone calls from each one of those communities and I'm going to listen. But in the end, I think everybody is best served if we just cover our communities aggressively, truthfully, honestly and fairly, no matter which communities they are.

GORDON: Let me take you to the broader issue of the media, the news media in particular. When you take a look at the canvas, if you will, over the last couple of years, we've been taking a lot of knocks. I'm curious how you see the media, what you like about it today and what you would like to see improved.

Mr. BAQUET: I think a lot of the knocks have been unfair. But I think we--here are a couple of things, I think, we have to learn to do better. First off, we have to learn to take our knocks and not cry about them. We happen to be in a business that makes its living knocking everybody else. And I think if I'm in charge of overseeing the coverage of a new Supreme Court justice and I'm going to take a look at every part of his life as he goes through the nomination process, then I sure better be willing to take my hits from Web sites and others. And the one thing I'm developing is a thick skin in that regard.

What I like about newspapers and the media in general is no matter what anybody says, we're generally fair, we're generally honest. We've had big scandals over the last couple of years, but given how many media outlets there are, how many newspapers, how many television stations, how many Internet sites, not a whole lot of scandals. We have a better track record than most other gigantic parts of the society.

What I like is that we're paying attention to people a little more than we used to. We used to be a little arrogant. I'd be the first to admit that. when I was a reporter starting out in New Orleans, if I got a phone call from a reader, I almost held my nose as I hung up the phone. We've learned--we're better than that now. I think we're aggressive. I think we're tough. I think we should not be fearful because people criticize us. I think we have to stick to our guns. And I think as long as we do that, we'll figure out a way to continue to be relevant to people.

GORDON: You mentioned you started in New Orleans, I read, as a police reporter. We should note that you have been a national editor for The New York Times. When you take a look at your career and the growth process, what about as you look back to the next generation? You are now in a place where people are looking to your career as inspiration. Do you like what you see behind you? There's still a lot of concern in terms of a representation in the media, particularly of people of color.

Mr. BAQUET: I think when I look back at my career, I've had a lot of good fortune. There were a lot of people throughout my career who helped me, who mentored me. I think the best thing I had going for me as a young reporter, and I would encourage people to have the same view as they go into it, is that I was modest. I started out at 19 not knowing anything and perfectly willing to admit it. I developed a little bit more confidence, but not until I got older. I wanted to learn every part of the craft. I was patient. I had fun while I was doing it. I happened to work in a profession where the learning part of it is a blast. But I think patience and being willing to learn how to do every part of the craft is important, no matter what out get into. I think the craft is about to change dramatically because of the Internet and other stuff. But I think the same stuff holds. I think the same rules hold.

GORDON: Do you still, at 48, I read--do you still have the same kind of fun you had...

Mr. BAQUET: I forgot to change that.

GORDON: ...when you were 19?

Mr. BAQUET: Yes. Yeah, actually, whenever I get together with friends of mine who don't work for newspapers, I realize how much more fun I have than they do. There are a lot more pressures. I have to worry about budgets. I have to worry about the careers of other people. But the reality is I come into the newsroom every morning with about 10 things that I want to get done in terms of coverage. I can influence coverage of everything from how we write about music, to how we write about Supreme Court nominees, to how we cover the most interesting city in America. That's a blast. You can't complain too much about that.

GORDON: Do you believe--and you talked about this briefly, but I'm curious in terms of how you see the general public and their perception of the media and newspapers. Do you believe that newspapers, television news, etc., now sit in the seat of having to win the confidence of the viewer, the listener, the reader back?

Mr. BAQUET: Yeah, we do. As I said earlier, I think that we were a little arrogant. I think that we didn't pay enough attention to readers and, I guess, the television equivalent would be viewers. We were monopolies. We were almost like public utilities. I think that we have to pay a lot more attention to what people want, but I don't think we can give people everything they want. I think, by and large, we have to win people back, but I think the way we have to do it is by doing what we do best, which is being aggressive, which is sometimes telling people not just what they want to know, but sometimes what we all agree are some of the things maybe they should know to make decisions as informed citizens.

It's a tricky balancing act because, on the one hand, we have to win them back. On the other hand, I don't want to pander to readers and I don't think readers want to be pandered to either. I think they want to be interested. I think they want to be excited. I think they want to read stuff in my paper that they can't find anyplace else.

GORDON: Let me ask you before we let you go, the obligatory question when one is starting out in a position like this, whether you retire here or whether you move on to yet another lofty position. At the end of the day when this is over for you, what would you like people to have said about your tenure?

Mr. BAQUET: I would like people to say that he figured out a way to get the newspaper through a difficult period for newspapers. But then I would like people to say he figured out a way to run a newspaper that was really of its place, that he really helped figure out a way to make the Los Angeles Times really a newspaper of California. And I have no intention of doing anything other than being editor the LA Times. This is the end of my ambitions, I think.

GORDON: Well, we'll see if that holds true. But we thank you for your time and, again, we wish you luck with everything and...

Mr. BAQUET: Thank you.

GORDON: ...proud that you have this spot.

Mr. BAQUET: Thank you very much.

GORDON: Dean Baquet officially becomes editor of the Los Angeles Times on August 15th.

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