Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
A couple of months ago Dean Baquet, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times, was speaking at a journalism forum at the University of Southern California. He was expressing his thoughts on newspaper careerists too ambitious to fully learn their craft. He found his example at the Chicago Tribune.
Baquet said the Tribune's editor, Gerry Kern, "knows zero [chuckle] about newspapering. It was staggering to me. He was just a guy who , you know, just kept giving the right answers to his bosses. And never, and never—he knows I feel this way, I’ve said it to him, . . . he was a guy who just gave the right answers to his bosses and never learned how to really be a journalist—to my way of thinking."
Early in his career, Baquet was an investigative reporter at the Tribune. He moved on to the New York Times, where he became national editor, and then rejoined the Tribune Company as managing editor and then editor of the Los Angeles Times. He was fired in 2006 after publicly defying orders out of Chicago to cut the Times budget by more than he'd already cut it. Now he's managing editor for news operations of the New York Times.
Kern came to the Tribune from the Daily Herald in 1991. He directed suburban coverage, then metro coverage, and then the features section, and eventually took the corporate job of editorial director, coordinating the flow of shared content among the company's daily papers. Kern was named editor in 2008 when Ann Marie Lipinski resigned the position after Sam Zell took over the company.
Dozens of Tribune vets abandoned or were dropped from the paper during the Zell era, and I've described Kern as a survivor who kept his head down as Zell's minions, primarily CEO Randy Michaels, ran roughshod over the company.
Baquet's estimation of Kern is understandable. That doesn't make it accurate or fair. It's the voice of one generation that thinks itself, with reason, as bloodied, martyred, and virtuous, and looks contemptuously at the compromises of its successors. Today's Tribune is very different from the one that Baquet knew when he was young and in some respects clearly inferior to it. That Tribune, which friends of his like Lipinski eventually ran, had money and arrogance and found its stories around the world. This Tribune focuses on Chicago, raises muck, and celebrates itself for raising it. It's a more limited and less dignified paper. But—and this is especially true since Michaels was tossed out on his ear— on its own terms it's a good one. Its editor is clearly not someone who doesn't know what he's doing.
A response from Kern:
“I am disappointed that Dean Baquet feels compelled to attack me personally. We disagreed on many issues when he was at the Los Angeles Times, but I always respected him as a person and his viewpoints as a journalist. I still do.
“Our goal at the Chicago Tribune is to build a news organization that will weather our industry’s current economic hardships and ensure that public service journalism lives on. Fair-minded people will disagree at times about ideas and methods. In time, history will render its judgment.”