Dean Baquet’s insurgency at the Los Angeles Times lasted less than eight weeks.
Around 3 p.m. local time on Nov. 7, the editor of the illustrious but anxious West Coast paper stepped out of his office and climbed up on a newsroom desk to address the staff.
It was a reprise of his appearance on Sept. 21, his 50th birthday, when a cake party turned into an outpouring of hope and catharsis from the staff.
Then, the staff had been buoyed by Mr. Baquet’s public rejection of budget cuts demanded by the paper’s owner, The Chicago Tribune—and by the fact that the paper’s Chicago-supplied publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, had joined the rebellion.
Now it was over. Mr. Baquet had become a news-industry folk hero, an inspiration for every editor with dreams of fighting off the spreadsheet-wielding, profit-target-setting out-of-town suits. Meanwhile, though, Mr. Johnson had been dismissed within a month of the rebellion and replaced by a new Chicago-supplied publisher, David Hiller.
And at 2 p.m., in the middle of Election Day, Mr. Baquet had sent out an e-mail saying that he would be leaving, too. According to the L.A. Times’ own account, Mr. Hiller asked him to resign after he refused to make more budget cuts.
What one staffer referred to as a “Mexican standoff” was over.
“It just seemed like totally inevitable when he wasn’t fired when Jeff Johnson was fired, and he didn’t quit when Jeff Johnson was fired,” the staffer said.
“I can’t say I was surprised,” said John Carroll, Mr. Baquet’s predecessor and mentor. Mr. Carroll had resigned from the paper in 2005 in his own act of protest over the Tribune Company’s budget-cutting. “Dean took a firm stand. He knew it could lead to his departure. But I think he regarded losing his job as preferable to causing severe damage to the paper.”
Mr. Baquet’s top button was undone and his tie was loosened, but he was still wearing his gray suit. And he was still aiming to be an inspiration. He congratulated his staff on years of award-winning journalism.
“You have to keep going,” he said, according to a newsroom witness. “Just keep making this a great newspaper. We have great traditions here. That’s the stuff you can do for me.”
“He talked about the Pulitzers,” said another person who was present, adding that Mr. Baquet rallied the paper to cover the evening’s midterm elections. “He basically said, ‘Let’s kick ass.’”
Mr. Baquet was met with a thunderous ovation, reverberating throughout the newsroom and via conference call to reporters listening in at national and international bureaus.
Those far-off staffers may have even greater cause for concern, as Mr. Hiller’s memo announcing the change emphasized the need to focus on local coverage.
“I don’t think anybody knows what it means,” said one reporter.
The L.A. Times’ national and global reach has been one feature that has kept the paper in the top class of American dailies.
Another such feature was Mr. Baquet himself, who turned his back on a career at The New York Times to become Mr. Carroll’s managing editor out West.
Initially, when Mr. Baquet drew the line against budget cuts, it was reported that the paper’s top editors had made a “suicide pact” to follow him out the door if he left. But the evening that news of Mr. Baquet’s departure broke, managing editor Douglas Frantz sent out an e-mail to the staff with the subject line “I’m staying.”
“I took the managing editor’s job partly out of loyalty to [Mr. Baquet],” Mr. Frantz wrote, “but over the last year, my loyalty expanded to encompass all of you and the jobs that you do for this newspaper. So while I’m angry and heartbroken, I’m not quitting. And I’m asking all of you not to quit, not literally or figuratively.”
Managing editor Leo Wolinsky, another purported member of the suicide pact, seconded Mr. Frantz’s announcement.
“This is not the first trauma to hit the newsroom,” he wrote in an e-mail.
A reporter described the staff as “heartbroken” by Mr. Baquet’s departure.
“For me and for a lot of people at the paper, losing him feels like a major loss,” the reporter said. “He makes you think, ‘How did I get so lucky to get to be a newspaper reporter?’ It’s emotional, because he is the guy you want to work for. It’s been an incredibly upsetting afternoon. He is just a guy who inspires personal loyalty.”
Mr. Heller’s remarks, which immediately followed Mr. Baquet’s, met with a considerably more tempered reception. “I didn’t think it would come to this,” the publisher said.
He spoke in a dull tone and told the staff that cuts were coming, but repeatedly said that there would be no layoffs this year.
“Through the end of the year, there are no cuts in sight,” a witness reported him saying.
Given that there were only 50-some days left till the end of the year, the remark drew reporters’ “gallows laughter.”
Where Mr. Baquet constantly told the staff they were putting out the country’s best newspaper, Mr. Hiller declared more tepidly that it was “one of the best, if not the best.”
He hailed the new editor, Chicago Tribune managing editor Jim O’Shea, as a “reporter’s reporter.”
Current and former Tribune staffers variously described Mr. O’Shea as “better than most here,” “a loyal company guy,” “a caricature of a Trib suit” and “a better newsman than manager.”
In 2005, Mr. O’Shea told the American Journalism Review that he had a “difference of opinion” with Mr. Carroll over Mr. Carroll’s belief that newspapers should principally carry stories written by their own staffs. Mr. O’Shea said that a paper in the chain should carry the “best story” available, even if it meant The Tribune running stories from Los Angeles (and, by implication, vice versa). “It’s the least inspiring thing you can hear as a reporter,” a former Tribune staffer said. “It’s basically your boss saying, ‘We’re not interested in running what you do.’”
Mr. Carroll said he was hoping that some private buyer—billionaires David Geffen, Ron Burkle and Eli Broad have all been reported to be interested—would be able to take the L.A. Times off the Tribune Company’s hands.
“It could be very exciting if David Geffen buys it and makes Arianna Huffington the editor,” said former editorial-page editor Michael Kinsley.
But what kind of excitement would that be, exactly?
“You know, there is no guarantee that any of these billionaires will do right by the paper,” Mr. Carroll said. “But I think the chances of the paper succeeding under Tribune are zero. With another owner, the chances will be better than zero.”
—Additional reporting by Jason Horowitz and Anna Schneider-Mayerson
“Aren’t we in this weird moment of chaos in the news business?” asked Scott Heifernan, the C.E.O. of Meetup.com and now an investment partner with The New York Times. Mr. Heifernan is part of an all-star team of dot-commers backing a news start-up called Daylife, which had a behind-the-scenes soft launch on Nov. 6. According to Daylife founder Upendra Shardanand, nearly half the money involved—a sum in the low to mid-seven figures—has come from The Times.
“Does The New York Times’ validation of this not-yet-released start-up give it the ultimate feel of guaranteed success?” Mr. Heifernan said. “No. If The New York Times knew everything, they would have done this themselves.”
Instead, like a wide-eyed (and wealthy!) fraternity pledge, The Times is using its millions to buy into a project alongside Mr. Heifernan, Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer, Abuzz and Judy’s Book founder Andy Sack and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, according to PaidContent.org.
Then there’s Mr. Shardanand, who made his name by co-founding Firefly Network, an online music-and-movie service, as an M.I.T. undergraduate in 1995 and then selling it to Microsoft.
“One thing about reading news is that there is so much information out there,” said Mr. Shardanand. “How to give people a broad view that’s simple and easy?”
Daylife’s backers are reluctant to go into detail about the project, but the basic outline comes through: It will be a news aggregator, not a reporting-and-writing shop. It’s hiring engineers, not editors. It will likely feature user-generated material through comments or forums. Users will also rate the perceived reliability of the news it collects.
Daylife’s form will be shaped, Mr. Shardanand said, by the individual reader’s interests. Who needs centralized authority? The Sulzberger family may not care to take orders from Wall Street, but on the Web, The Times is betting on the wisdom of crowds.
And with the new, vaguely menopausal-sounding Daylife, it’s especially betting on the wisdom of the Internet-pundit crowd—whose up-with-the-masses unorthodoxy is beginning to sound a bit … conventionalized.
“There’s a lot of trends here,” said Jeff Jarvis, the go-to expert on Internet media and another Daylife participant. “Now you have this menu of news from across the world. You’re no longer limited by what comes to your doorstep or your rabbit ears.”
Mr. Jarvis—BuzzMachine blogger, CUNY professor and omni-consultant—announced on his blog in May 2005 that he had quit his job with Condé Nast’s Advance.net and was working as a consultant for the New York Times Company.
Mr. Jarvis wrote in the same post that he would also “act as editor in chief of a new news start-up founded by Upendra Shardanand.”
In the actual event, Mr. Jarvis’ title with Daylife has turned out to be “consultant.” Regardless, he expressed in-at-the-ground-floor enthusiasm for the venture. “We’re not trying to talk about the project right now, but there will be hell of a lot in there,” Mr. Jarvis said.
In lieu of specifics about the new project, Mr. Jarvis offered some thoughts on the “new architecture of news.”
“We look too much in the industry and say news is shrinking,” Mr. Jarvis said. “That’s not the case—news is exploding.”
Mr. Shardanand said that he’d been kicking the idea of Daylife around since 2002, and that he sees a greater “appetite for new forms of news experiences” now than he did four years ago.
“It feels a little bit more palatable than it did before,” Mr. Shardanand said.
By March 2005, Mr. Shardanand started pulling in investors, about half of them colleagues from his Firefly days.
And since then?
“They’ve been secretly working in the corner of the Meetup office for about a year,” said Mr. Heifernan. There are now some 12 Daylife staffers sharing Meetup’s Greenwich Village space, he said.
Mr. Heifernan, like Mr. Jarvis, preferred to discuss Daylife in broad terms. “If you think Google News is a great innovation, then that’s not thinking too big,” Mr. Heifernan said.
Mr. Sack, who sold Abuzz to the Times Company in 1999 for an undisclosed amount, reached to the pre-Web era for an analogy. “When CNN came on with 24-hour news, that was a big innovation,” he said. “I think Upendra has the same type of vision for Daylife.”
And so, by extension, would The Times. “They may be the old lady of journalism,” Mr. Sack said, “but [senior vice president for digital operations] Martin Nisenholtz has always been experimenting, testing and innovating. In many ways, as a company, they are at the forefront of technology.”
Mr. Nisenholtz was attending the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, taking place from Nov. 7 to 9, and didn’t return calls and e-mails seeking comment. Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. was at Web 2.0 as well, speaking alongside IAC/InterActiveCorp chief Barry Diller.
As The Times works on making its peace with the Web era, another Daylife investor is trying to make peace with newspapers. Mr. Newmark, whose free goods-and-services listings on Craigslist have bled profits from newspaper classified ads, said Daylife is a way of making amends.
“If I want to be a standup guy, I should be doing something to promote the evolution of journalism and the preservation of journalism jobs,” Mr. Newmark said. He added that he has talked to “real experts” in the journalism field for guidance. “I know that I’m a dilettante at best,” Mr. Newmark said. “That’s why I talk to people who do know what they’re doing.”
Mr. Shardanand said that Daylife, in addition to pursuing ad revenue, is “exploring making our services available to publishers on a licensing basis.” And Mr. Jarvis said that Daylife is “going to have relationships with a lot of news companies” beyond The Times.
Meanwhile, news companies will be having relationships with other aggregators. On Nov. 6, three major publishers, Gannett Co. Inc., Tribune Co. and the McClatchy Co., invested $15 million in Topix.net.
“Every single newspaper in the country has sort of got religion,” said Chris Tolles, vice president of sales and marketing at Topix.net. Mr. Tolles added that the number of start-ups is a rebuttal to the mainstream reports of the death of the newspaper industry.
“If this was such a disaster, why would we all be going into the business?” he said. Mr. Tolles said he is ready for the competition.
“Jarvis has been threatening to launch a project for three years,” Mr. Tolles said. “I want to see it. Great, you’ve got the voice of the new media. You’ve got Craig Newmark. This is great. Welcome to the party. We’ll take our Top 25 status and nine million unique [visitors] and see what they bring.”