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Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 09:45 am

Rebels in the newsroom

Newspapers can’t cut themselves into the future

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“It’s dangerous,” Voltaire warned, “to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”

Dean Baquet and Jeffrey Johnson could tell you all about that. Until recently, Baquet was the editor and Johnson the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, America’s fourth-largest newspaper. In a rare and gutsy move in today’s world of conglomerate-owned journalism, these two dared to defy the owners by taking a principled stand for the paper’s workers.

The Times is owned by Chicago-based Tribune Co. More concerned about great stock prices than great journalism, the corporate parent has been cutting the news staff in Los Angeles, eliminating nearly a fourth of its reporters and editors in five years.

This summer, the Chicago brass demanded more cuts — but, lo and behold, Baquet and Johnson rebelled. “You can go too far [in cutting staff],” declared Baquet, “and I don’t plan to do that.” Johnson backed him up, saying, “Newspapers can’t cut their way into the future.”

They are, of course, right. Indeed, the Times is a moneymaker, producing 20 percent profit margins! But Wall Street investors always want more for themselves, even if it means strangling the product.

So Baquet took his fight public, calling on editors at other papers to “be a feistier bunch” and “push back” against destructive journalistic cuts by corporate profiteers. Yes, editors must understand the business model of the corporate executives at the top, Baquet noted — “but don’t understand it too much.”

Both Baquet and Johnson have now been fired by Tribune. Being right can be dangerous — but, as Voltaire would agree, there will be no justice or freedom in our world unless principled people stand up to greed and autocracy. We desperately need more rebels like Baquet and Johnson — in all of America’s newsrooms.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist, and author.

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