Dean Baquet Avoids Executive Logjam at The Times and Heads West

Normally, July 25 would have been a busy day for Dean Baquet, the national editor of The New York Times . It was a big news day, with the President declaring the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks a failure, George W. Bush announcing Richard Cheney as his running mate and, though it wasn’t handled by his national desk, a Concorde jet crashing just outside Paris. But as this was his second-to-last day at The New York Times before leaving to be the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times , Mr. Baquet was pretty much a spectator.

“I’m here physically but I’ve been disengaging myself,” Mr. Baquet said. “I’ve been calling my staff to say goodbye.”

“I have a cool job at The New York Times ,” he said, “and I’m confident that I would have other cool jobs at The New York Times, but this felt a little scary and scary feels good.”

The Los Angeles Times , in turmoil in recent years, was purchased in March by the Tribune Company, which brought in John Carroll from the Baltimore Sun as editor. “I guess it was the belief that there was a strong editor in John Carroll going. It felt like the right time to be a top editor of that paper,” Mr. Baquet said.

“It was shocking,” said one Times insider. “I can’t remember anyone at that level being hired away from The Times .”

Even managing editor Bill Keller said he was taken by surprise. “It was a bit of a shock. I wish I could say I saw it coming, but I didn’t.”

Mr. Baquet has a lot to explain to his former colleagues.

Mr. Baquet’s departure as national editor, just as the presidential campaign heats up, couldn’t come at a worse time, logistically, for executive editor Joe Lelyveld and managing editor Bill Keller.

Mr. Keller said that the paper would manage through the campaign season, appointing a new national editor some time afterward. Meanwhile, foreign editor Andy Rosenthal is temporarily taking over the national duties.

“Andy’s run the coverage of campaigns, and he’s just really strong on this stuff,” Mr. Keller said, “so it just makes us really strong on the national desk during a critical period and it gives us a little time to decide what we want to do next.”

Mr. Keller then brought up political editor Jim Roberts and Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes. “This place has a pretty deep bench,” Mr. Keller said.

Mr. Baquet’s departure runs counter to decades of tradition at The Times . Even though the age of copy boys becoming executive editors may have ended, those who are initiated into The Times after high-profile stints elsewhere are expected to stay put and wait for their shot at the top.

Mr. Baquet had long been on his way. Now 43, he was hired in 1990 after his investigative reporting for the Chicago Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Baquet was made national editor in 1995, and in the plodding system of advancement at The Times , Mr. Baquet had a certain gleam. Attempting to keep him, the big honchos told him as much.

“I told him when I was hoping that he’d stay that I imagine a future of this paper in which he would have a big part,” Mr. Keller said.

Mr. Baquet would have had to just stick out the wait.

“He’s probably 10 or 15 years away from an equivalent job here,” said one staffer. Mr. Carroll of the Los Angeles Times put Mr. Baquet on the express line to the top.

At The New York Times , which has advanced generations of editors at roughly the same speed for decades, there are plenty of people ahead of Mr. Baquet, who as a department head is already pretty close to the top.

“Basically they’re a step away from having their name on the masthead,” an observer of Times culture said. “They all want the assistant managing editor title.” But “it’s clogged up at the assistant managing editor level.” Currently there are six assistant managing editors.

Mr. Baquet said this sort of thinking didn’t enter into his decision. “I didn’t feel stuck,” Mr. Baquet said. “A tremendous amount of the power at the paper and the excitement at the paper is at the department head level,” he continued, saying that this has largely been a change introduced by executive editor Joe Lelyveld.

Nonetheless, when people leave The New York Times , the Los Angeles Times is not usually where they go. The two Times es tend to run west to east, and they couldn’t be more separate as institutions. Mr. Baquet’s defection has led some on 43rd Street to reconsider the Los Angeles Times as a contender to be a national paper.

“Even now, in limbo, it’s a very big, ambitious paper,” said one New York Times staff member. Victims of a poaching, the New York Times staff members are now willing to give the Los Angeles Times more credit as competition, more than they did during the long, golden years of the Chandler family, when despite its deep pockets of talent–from its brilliant cartoonist Paul Conrad to its Reagan-era political writer Lou Cannon–it was something of an irrelevancy in the east. Not that the Baquet hiring changes things in those terms but, said the New York Times source, “It’s now more than The Washington Post that could give this paper a run for its money.”

“The fact that Dean is going makes me take a second look,” said another reporter, who admitted of the Los Angeles paper, “I think they’re getting more competitive.”

Mr. Keller wouldn’t go that far. “Dean’s got a real good eye for a story,” he said, “and yeah, I think they’ll be more competitive with him there. But I don’t think that this means the L. A. Times is suddenly where good people want to be rather than here.” After all, Mr. Keller said, The New York Times has just picked up Dean Murphy, a foreign correspondent, from the Los Angeles Times .

Nevertheless, he does tip his hat to Mr. Carroll on the Baquet raid. “The fact that he’s from The New York Times is going to be very reassuring to all the journalists in L.A. who were scared about what they’ve heard about the Tribune Company and their obsession with profit margins.”

Compared to the usual pace on 43rd Street, the departure of Mr. Baquet went at the speed of light. Mr. Baquet said he first met Mr. Carroll seven weeks ago for dinner at Café des Artistes (which Zagat deemed “‘a must’ setting ‘for that one special occasion’–’propose,’ ‘seduce,’ ‘impress’…” ).

The two hit it off. A trip to Los Angeles over a long weekend with his wife a couple of weeks later, then Mr. Carroll made an offer on July 10, then Mr. Baquet accepted. Then, the usual Sturm und Drang : Mr. Baquet told Mr. Keller and Mr. Lelyveld, they began to try to talk him out of it, as they previously had when the Miami Herald approached Mr. Baquet about becoming executive editor there.

Then The New York Times head honchos tried to scare Mr. Baquet off with some patented Times humor. “We did mention to him that there’s stuff in the air in L.A. that makes your penis fall off,” said Mr. Keller, “and a few things like that.” But Mr. Baquet went anyhow.

W elcome to the Holiday Inn! When the New York media horde arrives in Los Angeles in August to cover the Democratic National Convention, many will find that they have been exiled from the $300-a-night Century Plaza Hotel to the amazing cylindrical Brentwood Bel-Air Holiday Inn right above I-405 and Sunset Boulevard.

Democratic convention spokesman Peter Ragone said most of the rooms allotted to the New York press corps had to be moved. Though the White House has not officially announced where the President will be staying, the reason for the posh-room shortage going around media circles is that President Clinton will be staying in the Century Plaza–where President Reagan held his victory party in 1984–and his entourage will displace the reporters.

Thus, there’s quite a bit of jockeying going on for the remaining handful of rooms, and many of those who don’t know where they’ll be sleeping in Los Angeles decided to stay mum in lieu of drawing the accommodational wrath of the Democrats. ( The Observer is one of those media organizations that wants rooms at the inn.)

Said one local political reporter of the possibility of bunking in the Holiday Inn, “It sucks.” The reporter then cited the desire to “be at the same bar with Johnny Apple; you don’t want to be sipping Diet Cokes with the Rotary Club.”

The front desk supervisor of the Holiday Inn attempted to console the displaced. “They’re the same. They’re probably four-star and we’re three-star.” And guess what! Those who want to take a dip in the pool with Johnny Apple–aaugh!–can invite him over to the Holiday Inn. The Century Plaza pool is closed for renovations.

Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at gsnyder@observer.com.