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NY Times first black executive editor Baquet is popular newsroom leader

WASHINGTON -- Hard-charging editor Dean Baquet was once sacked for standing by his reporters. He bounced back and is now the first African-American to hold the most prestigious title in U.S. journalism, executive editor of the New York Times.

On Wednesday, the august U.S. daily abruptly fired its first female executive editor, Jill Abramson, replacing her with Baquet in a surprise move that sent shockwaves through the newsroom and revived allegations that she was a victim of sexism.

But while Abramson's sudden departure was a blow to gender balance in the upper echelons of the paper, her 57-year-old replacement — a black journalist from a modest background in New Orleans — is a trailblazer of another type.

Baquet is a popular figure in the newsroom, despite or perhaps in part because of his fiery reputation — he reportedly once punched a hole in the wall of the Times' Washington bureau when a story did not make the front page.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting at the Chicago Tribune and was fired as editor of the Los Angeles Times for refusing to slash reporting jobs.

“It's humbling to be asked to lead the only newsroom in the country that's actually a lot better than it was a generation ago,” Baquet told several hundred staff members at the New York newsroom.

“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 an interview with a Times reporter.

“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 family operated a Creole restaurant, and studied at Columbia University. He worked at the Times-Picayune of New Orleans and Chicago Tribune, then became a reporter at The New York Times.

He joined the Los Angeles Times in 2000 and served at top editorial positions before his 2006 dismissal.

The appointment at the “gray lady” nonetheless carries significance for an industry which in many respects has failed to live up to its goals of increasing diversity.

“I think a lot of people in the news industry would tell you that despite significant attempts to diversity the newsroom, they have fallen short of their goals,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director at the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project.

“The ascension of Dean Baquet has significance and is important to note,” Jurkowitz told AFP.

A recent Indiana University survey found the number of minority journalists in the United States had dropped to 8.5 percent in 2013 from 9.5 percent in 2002, while the overall minority percentage of the population had risen to 36.6 percent.

Baquet takes charge of a newsroom of roughly 1,200 staff, arguably the most important in America, but which faces the pressures of an industry struggling with a transition to digital news.

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