The Tribune Co., which has an all-important board meeting today where the crisis at its Los Angeles Times will be front and center, may have a bigger problem than even the corporate owners realize with the paper’s top editorial management. I’m told there’s even a name for it inside the LA Times newsroom – ”The Suicide Pact” — and it involves the highest-ranking editors. I’ve learned from insiders that, if Dean Baquet gets fired as editor and executive vice president by his Chicago bosses, then his trusted senior lieutenants have agreed to quit on the spot: Doug Frantz, Leo Wolinsky, and John Montorio.

All three men were promoted by Baquet in October 2005, so they must feel that they owe him this rather extreme display of their loyalty. Frantz had been the paper’s Istanbul bureau chief, and then was made managing editor along with Wolinsky, upped from deputy managing editor. They replaced Baquet, who had held the managing editor title before ascending to editor when John Carroll quarrelled with Tribune management and exited the paper. Wolinsky, an LAT veteran since 1977, was given more responsibility first by Carroll and then successor Baquet. Features czar Montorio was promoted from deputy managing editor to associate editor.

At the time, Baquet was quoted as saying this about Frantz and Wolinsky sharing the No. 2 job: “I wanted an aggressive way to address the issue of declining readership, to have someone focus on it. And I wanted someone to run the newsroom day to day. For a newspaper of our scope and complexity, this would be enough work for more than one person.” Here’s how the LAT itself has described what the three guys do: Frantz has been overseeing the paper’s major news operations, including coverage of foreign, national, California, business, sports and science news. Wolinsky continued to run the paper’s front-page operation and assumes responsibility for efforts to attract more readers and gain circulation. His job description entailed working with the entire LAT organization to expand readership and oversee newsroom resources, including staffing and budgeting. As for Montorio, he was given the additional charge of a variety of special news projects, including the development of more profiles in the main news section and improved coverage of trends. All three editors report to Baquet. Frantz, 57, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of several books, worked as a LAT staff writer during the late 1980s and early 1990s before leaving for The New York Times, where he held several positions including investigations editor and reporter. Frantz returned to the LAT in early 2003. Wolinsky, 57, joined the LAT as a staff writer and has held several editing positions, including executive editor, managing editor of news and deputy managing editor. During the 1990s, Wolinsky headed the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Los Angeles riots and the Northridge earthquake. Montorio, 58, followed Baquet to the LAT in 2001 after 15 years at the NYT, and has launched the LAT‘s Home and Outdoors sections and overhauled the Calendar, Food and Health sections.

The latest news from LAT vs Tribune frontlines (see LAObserved.com updates) is that LAT publisher Jeff Johnson just returned from Chicago claiming he had reached “an understanding” with Tribune bosses, including a commitment to strong journalism and other blather no underlings at the paper really believe. Like all newsrooms, wry cracks behind the backs of the Suicide Pacters have begun to spread among the LAT worker-bee journalists, along the lines of: Hey, if Baquet does get fired, how many of the three editors under him really need replacing?

See my July 2005 lalogo.gif column: Baquet Begins

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.

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