Panic had already set in when Mr. Baquet, now the Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, was trying to fight layoffs as editor of the Los Angeles Times. "You couldn't say, 'What can we do that our newer competitors can't do?'" he said.
"I buy that the industry is changing," he added. "I buy that we have to change with it. But nobody's talking about the good stuff."
Who was there
Mr. Baquet shared the stage with Gary B. Pruitt, chairman and president-CEO of McClatchy Co., in conversation with The New Yorker's Ken Auletta. Attendees included Time Warner Chairman-CEO Richard D. Parsons; Conde Nast Publications Chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr.; former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, now a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave; Victor Navasky from the Columbia Journalism Review; Larry Ingrassia, business editor at The New York Times; and former Los Angeles Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson, who, like Mr. Baquet, was forced to resign last year in a public dispute with Tribune Co. over cost cuts. The panel was convened by Syracuse University's Newhouse School in New York.
Newspaper readership is actually expanding when online readers are included in the count, both panelists said.
Not only that, but all the new-media proliferation is hitting TV much harder than newspapers, Mr. Pruitt said. "Actually, the saving grace for newspapers is that they're not proliferating," he said. "They're holding onto their audiences better than other media."
It may not be a total surprise that two newspaper lifers defended the viability of their medium, but they also accepted that challenges exist. "I'm not opposed to cutting or trying new things," Mr. Baquet said. "In fact I'm a realist. And I've worked at newspapers long enough to know these are tough times."
Mr. Pruitt said a combination of the "recalibration of share" that's going on and weakness in ad categories such as real estate has to be dealt with -- but it doesn't signal the end of newspapers. "People have mistaken that, I think, for a death spiral," he said.
All the same, newspapers these days have to operate the best local sites in their markets, Mr. Pruitt argued. Online users are worth something like one-eighth or one-sixth as much as print readers because ad rates are so much higher for print than for web, but that's where the growth is. Digital accounted for 7.8% of McClatchy's revenue last year, he said.
Wall Street pressure
The industry hasn't done itself many favors, though, according to the pair. Wall Street demands on public newspaper companies have created so much pressure to cut costs that the money once used to promote papers is gone, Mr. Pruitt said. Shrinking head counts, moreover, are weakening the product. "I'm convinced that some of the loss of circulation is because we deliver less," he said. "Some of this is self-inflicted."
In answer to a question, Mr. Baquet said he wouldn't have gone along with the Los Angeles Times' plan, now aborted amid conflict-of-interest protests, to recruit guest editors such as Hollywood producer Brian Grazer for its Current section. Separately, Mr. Pruitt defended the dual-class stock structure that McClatchy, among others, uses to maintain family control, but said one of his goals over time is to put the company in a position to go private should the family ever want to.