Baquet to O'Shea: Tribune installs its guy at the Los Angeles Times.

Media criticism.
Nov. 8 2006 7:57 PM

Baquet to O'Shea

Tribune installs its guy at the Los Angeles Times. What's next?

James O'Shea. Click image to expand.
James O'Shea, gram-shaver*

I come to praise Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet, a consummate journalist who got the sack yesterday from his Tribune bosses for refusing to cut the newspaper's budget to their design.

OK, now that we've covered that base, what sort of editor will his replacement, Chicago Tribune Managing Editor James E. O'Shea, make? Where will he take the Times? Will it be someplace nice? Or will he visit ruin upon the paper?

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From Tribune's perspective, ruin has already been visited upon the paper. Times weekday circulation is about 776,000, down from 1 million-plus in 2000, when Tribune acquired it. Its circulation dropped 8 percent in the last six months, one of the worst showings in a declining industry. Sunday circulation can represent half or more of a metropolitan newspaper's revenues. At the Times, Sunday circ is 1.17 million, down 6 percent. Last month, the Chicago Tribune reported that Times third-quarter ad revenues fell 2 percent.

Critics of the cuts note the paper's operating profit margin of 20 percent, good for a newspaper and great for an average Fortune 500 company, as Katharine Q. Seelye reports in today's New York Times. It wasn't like the Los Angeles Times hadn't done its masters' bidding. Its editorial staff has gone from 1,200 to about 940 during the last five years. (The Chicago Tribune has about 625 newsroom employees; the Washington Post about 750; the New York Times about 1,200.) But Tribune's bosses wanted budget cuts, and now after the two-month standoff, both Baquet and Jeffrey Johnson, his former publisher, are gone. According to Seelye, new publisher David D. Hiller says further job cuts are coming, but none this year.

Which brings us back to O'Shea. At the Tribune, which has perfected if not invented the newsroom cutback,he earned a reputation as a shrewd and imaginative juggler of budgets. Almost a magician. As a 63-year-old, O'Shea is probably looking at his last or next-to-last newsroom job. Given his solid professional reputation, he has no incentive to cap his career by going down as the guy who chain-sawed the Los Angeles Times to higher profitability.

O'Shea claims not to have a secret plan, telling the Tribunetoday:

Everybody is looking for the golden road to the future ... and there is no golden road. We're all stumbling around in shifting sands. The business model is changing under our feet.

The Los Angeles Times' new publisher, David Hiller, attempted to reframe the discussion in the stark terms of pure survival when he spoke to the editorial staff yesterday:

"I can't sugarcoat it," he said. "This is about the future of our industry and whether we have one and whether it's a good one." [Emphasis added.]

Not to call O'Shea a liar, but I maintain that he is already printing the future Los Angeles Times inside his head. He doesn't want to be the guy credited with gutting the once-fat Los Angeles Times and Tribune—the evil, rapacious, greedy bastards in this tale. Tribune would gladly cheapen the paper to make more money, but Baquet and Johnson's futile campaign of resistance has made the Times the focus of attention in Los Angeles in a way it hasn't been since owner Harrison Gray Otis and son-in-law Harry Chandler used the paper in the early 1900s to run Southern California as their duchy.

Such attention is not a good thing. Readers who might not have previously noticed, say, a marginal reduction in the paper's news hole to make more money will be watching O'Shea with binoculars and night-vision goggles. Palpable cuts in the Times' quality will immediately translate into more ill will. Ill will has a way of translating into fewer copies sold and fewer advertisers. Lower circulation and fewer ad dollars almost always lower a newspaper's stock value, and that's something Tribune, which is preparing itself for sale, wants to avoid at all costs.

What if Tribune has tasked O'Shea with cutting costs but not necessarily head count? The loss of more full-time editorial staffers is the emotional focus of the Times drama. From his Tribune tenure, he's learned how to make slices look like pinpricks, at least from the reader's perspective. Before taking the Times job, he must have studied its books and thought through the whole exercise: what features to delete from the paper; what bureaus to trim; what staff to reassign; which special sections to unload from the editorial staff; and only then to reduce a few heads.

As a serious bicyclist, O'Shea knows all about "gram shavers," the obsessives who pare every bit of extraneous weight from their bikes to increase road speed. They remove the water-bottle cages from their frames, unscrew and toss the valve cap from their tires, and drill holes in their shift levers. To neophytes, the bike looks normal. Only the other obsessives detect the changes.

Of course, there's no point to gram-shaving unless it actually helps you win. When O'Shea assumes control of the Los Angeles Times on Monday, he should write himself a note reminding himself that there will be no point to whittling the paper to fiscal perfection unless he also makes it better, which won't be easy given Baquet's successes, or more commercial.

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As a serious swimmer, I drill my skull before my morning workout. It hasn't improved my performance, but I am a little more lightheaded. Send your performance tips to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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*Correction, Nov. 9, 2006: This piece originally included a photo captioned "James O'Shea, gram-shaver." The photo was not of O'Shea. It has been replaced with a photo of O'Shea supplied by the Chicago Tribune.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.