The unceremonial rise of Dean Baquet

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Baquet with Abramson and Keller. (AP Photo/The New York Times, Fred R. Conrad)
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It was 1984 when Dean Baquet left his job as a reporter for the Times-Picayune in his native New Orleans to become an investigative reporter at The Chicago Tribune, and the tale of his transition was summed up to Capital like this: The mayor of New Orleans called the mayor of Chicago to warn him.

Four years later, Baquet and two of his colleagues had a Pulitzer Prize under their belts for a series on political corruption and pay-to-play in the Windy City: the councilman on the west side who used his perch to promote a Coca Cola knockoff he was shilling; the one from the north who was in the business of pedaling amusement licenses; and so on.

"He was so patient and so methodical about tying string together," recalled Bruce Dold, the Tribune's editorial page editor, who covered Chicago City Hall alongside Baquet.

Patience and methodicalness will no doubt serve Baquet well in his new job, as will the razor sharp reporting chops and investigative mettle he has been known for throughout his more than three decades as a newsman.

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It's a career that arguably reached its apex on Wednesday when Baquet was named executive editor of The New York Times, replacing Jill Abramson, whose nearly three-year stint in the paper of record's top masthead position came to an abrupt and unexpected end amid reports that she had clashed with top Times brass, including Baquet himself. There was talk of a bungled attempt to hire another managing editor, chilliness between Abramson and Times Company C.E.O. Mark Thompson, and tensions with chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who surprised the paper's senior editing ranks when he informed them in a 2 p.m. Wednesday meeting of his decision to oust the first female executive editor in New York Times history.

All of this cast a pall over what was an otherwise triumphant day for Baquet, 57, the first African American executive editor in New York Times history.

He takes the reins at a pivotal moment when The Times is shoring up digital initiatives, like niche subscription apps and ambitious video projects, to mitigate the economic harm that's been done by some seven years of spiraling advertising revenues, consistent with the rest of the increasingly less print-centric publishing industry's troubles.

"This appointment comes at a time when the newsroom is about to embark on a significant effort to transition more fully to a digital-first reality and where, across the organization, we are all learning to adapt to the rapid pace of change in our business," Sulzberger noted in a Wednesday afternoon staff memo.

During a full newsroom meeting following Sulzberger's announcement, according to sources who were present, Baquet told the troops: "I'll be around. I'll be hands-on. I'll be walking the aisles. It's the only way I know how to edit."

Baquet appears to be stepping into the role without the sort of baggage that has dogged his most recent three predecessors: The earth-shattering journalistic crises and authoritarian tendencies that got Howell Raines fired in 2003; the apparent post-9/11 obeisance for which Bill Keller has been criticized; the "newsroom management" issues that Sulzberger vaguely cited as his reason for canning Abramson.

In fact, if popular opinion is any indication, Baquet is off to a fantastic start.

"Dean is as advertised: likable and funny," one Times editor told Capital, asking not to be identified.

"Everybody I've ever known basically adores Dean," said a source close to the paper who knows Baquet socially and likewise asked to remain anonymous. "Basically, the guy's a born leader, he really is. He's a journalist who everybody respects. He's really good at what he does. He's charming, he's funny, he's demanding."

Times alumni polled by Capital were similarly sanguine.

"Dean is a class act, a dynamite journalist and a natural manager," said Lisa Belkin, a reporter who left the Times in 2011 after 29 years there. "Everyone assumes he will be great in this job."

"Dean's sort of the perfect editor for the moment, because he's a guy who's genuinely open to change, but he's also a very calming personality," said Matt Bai, who was a Times Magazine staff writer for 11 years until this past November. "And I think both of those are important when you have so much transformation going on, because it creates a lot of opportunity but also a ton of anxiety."

Baquet earned some high-profile praise from former Time and CNN chief Walter Isaacson, who worked with Baquet early in their careers at an afternoon paper in New Orleans.

"Dean will be a great editor because good journalism is essentially a collaborative endeavor," Isaacson wrote on time.com. "Dean, with his friendly smile and deeply sympathetic soul, knows how to enlist people to work together, partner, cooperate, and collaborate. He’s a teambuilder."

Of course belovedness and people skills and journalistic firepower alone do not a successful editorship make—least not of all at a stentorian institution like the Times in a period of massive transformation and upheaval for newsrooms nationwide. And if Times Company executives were looking for someone who might be more cooperative, one wonders if they've found the right match in a guy who once "stood on a desk in the newsroom of The Los Angeles Times and announced that he had been fired as the paper’s editor after refusing to cut newsroom staff," as the Times' own profile of Baquet this morning puts it.

Reached via email Wednesday night, Baquet told Capital he was at a dinner and would try to get on the phone later, but that didn't happen before press time.

“The trick of running The New York Times is that you have to keep in mind that it is a very powerful print newspaper with a very appreciative audience,” he said in the Times profile. “You have to protect that while you go out there and get more readers through other means.”

Baquet grew up in New Orleans, where his father opened a Creole joint called Eddie's Restaurant. The second youngest of five brothers, his love of newspapering blossomed at an early age, partly thanks to his other love, the New Orleans Saints, whom he followed devoutly in newsprint.

After high school, Baquet went to Columbia University to study english, but dropped out to pursue a reporting gig back in New Orleans, where he was later hired by the Times-Picayune.

Baquet's first run at the Times came after his Chicago Tribune days; he joined the Times in 1990 as an investigative reporter. A decade later, The Los Angeles Times hired Baquet as managing editor, and he was promoted to editor in 2005.

Following Baquet's defiant gesture toward Los Angeles Times management in 2006, there was chatter he might return if the paper came under different ownership. Those rumors were quashed in 2007, when Baquet returned to The New York Times as Washington bureau chief (and new L.A. Times boss Sam Zell began running the beleaguered paper into the ground).

"The New York Times was clearer in telling me they wanted me back," Baquet said in an interview with The Washington Post at the time.

Though Baquet was hand-picked by Abramson to be her no. 2 in command back in 2011, it didn't negate the fact that he himself had been passed over for the top job. This week's development may not have been the way he envisioned getting that job, but now it is his nonetheless.

There will no doubt be skeptics, especially with regard to the Times' digital mandate, where most of the organization's future growth potential is concentrated, especially as the Times Company has slimmed down over the past few years, shedding non-core assets like about.com and The Boston Globe.

A brand new "innovation report" that was put together by Sulzberger's son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, and several other Times journalists, concluded that there's still much work to be done in terms of the Grey Lady's "digital-first transition."

While Abramson has been a vocal champion of recent innovations like the NYT Now app, Baquet doesn't exactly have the most digitally-oriented reputation.

"From my brief intersection with him at the LAT, where he treated the website with benign neglect, I hope Baquet really has changed his stance toward the internet," wrote Kate Aurthur, Buzzfeed's chief Los Angeles correspondent.

What he does have is an ample collection of believers.

"He has a broad vision of what a news operation should be," said Dold, Baquet's former Tribune colleague. "I think he'll make a tremendous editor."