Dean Baquet: [em]L.A. Times[/em] Morale in the Tank[/em]

The New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta began this morning’s all-star media panel, held at the W Hotel in midtown, with a question for McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt.

Would he have fired Dean Baquet from the Los Angeles Times?

“I doubt it,” he responded, “but I have no idea.”

Laughter ensued, not simply because of the query, legitimate in light of Baquet’s fallout with L.A. Times parent, the Tribune Company. It had more to do with Mr. Baquet, now New York Times D.C. bureau chief, being flanked by the two men.

All three were on stage, for roughly 90 minutes, to discuss the fate of the newspaper industry, the latest gathering of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School in New York.

Unsurprisingly, Si was sitting right up front.

Media machers filled the ballroom for the 8 a.m. breakfast, including the New Yorker’s David Remnick, Time Warner chief Dick Parksons, and the Ingrassia brothers, Larry and Paul, representing the N.Y. Times and Wall Street Journal, respectively. There was a gaggle of media reporters, as well as other notables like former New York Mayor (and New York Press columnist!) Ed Koch.

Continuing on the Tribune theme, Mr. Pruitt took a swipe or two himself.

“Fortunately, I wasn’t at the Tribune company,” he said. “Fortunately, I’m not there now. There still waiting for Godot. Sam Zell, apparently, is Godot.”

More laughter! Tribune jokes went over well, as certainly the entire room is waiting to see if Zell beats out Team Burkle and Broad. And Geffen? Who knows?

At one point, it should be noted, Baquet said he was not there “to get into Tribune Company bashing.” But to gage the room, when ousted L.A. Times publisher (and newsroom Kool-aid drinker) Jeff Johnson–now working for Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Co.–was asked to stand up, the audience applauded thusly.

The industry discussion included plenty of gloomy bits, too: continued loss of revenue, lack of younger readers, diminishing foreign coverage, and shuttering regional papers.

And, importantly, what about Wall Street’s take on the industry these days, and maintaining this ideal of a public trust?

“This is the part where I’ll sound a little idealistic,” said Baquet. “I hope that people who invest in newspapers don’t look for quarterly returns, or quarterly growth, because that’s just not going to happen in the industry now, that dramatic growth. Nobody’s doing that.”

“We’re 150 years old,” said Pruitt later on. “We started printing papers before the advent of electric lights. We’re going to make $200 million off the Internet this year. So we have responded to change.”

Later, Pruitt made very interesting remarks about the possibility of taking McClatchy, which currently has a dual stock structure, completely private.

“You can argue that it may be better over time to be a private company,” said Pruitt. “We feel better being a two class stock. One of my goals over time is to put the company in a position to at least have the flexibility to go private.”

Questions came from the bold face audience members, too.

There was The Nation‘s Victor Navasky (mentioning democracy and capitalism, of course), BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis (with his typically upbeat take on the Web), and self-described “freelancer” Lloyd Grove (on the “morality play” at the L.A. Times).

“I think, overall, the morale at the L.A. Times has been in the tank,” Baquet said.

Michael Calderone

Dean Baquet: [em]L.A. Times[/em] Morale in the Tank[/em]