Local Control of L.A. Times Ends – Again – As Publisher Austin Beutner Is Canned

Austin Beutner
Austin Beutner
Ted Soqui

Austin Beutner's curious reign as publisher of the Los Angeles Times ended today, when he was unceremoniously fired by the board of Tribune Publishing, the Times' parent company.

The move was as surprising as the decision, nearly 13 months ago, to hire him

Beutner, a former investment banker who served as deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa and then ran an aborted seven-month campaign for mayor himself, was seen by some as a potential savior of the Times, a businessman (but, perhaps crucially, not a manager) who could make the paper profitable and an Angeleno who could restore the Times to its rightful place as a civic institution.

"The L.A. Times was going considerably downhill before Austin Beutner came on," says former mayor and Beutner friend Richard Riordan. "And what Austin has done has helped make the L.A. Times more of a Los Angeles neighborhood newspaper, where we can read things about Los Angeles, rather than having it be all national or international news."

So why was Beutner axed? Ken Doctor, who broke the news for Capital New York (apparently before Beutner himself knew), explains:

The firing is an unexpected one, though one built on long-brewing differences between Beutner and his boss, Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin. It also follows quickly on Tribune Publishing’s rejection of overtures from a would-be buyer for the Times, an acquisition that would have taken the Times private. The firing and sales-overture rejection are not unrelated.

That would-be buyer was local richie Eli Broad, who was last spotted trying to buy the Times with Beutner himself, which they intended to run as a nonprofit. It's unclear whether the latest offer was connected to Beutner in any way, but the Tribune Publishing board may have seen a conflict of interest.

"If you’re in charge of the value of that asset that's becoming cheaper by the day and you want to buy that asset ... that can be problematic," says Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC's School of Communication and Journalism.

Tribune Publishing's stock price has been on a steady plunge since the newspaper division was spun off from the Tribune Company last summer; it's now trading at just over $11 a share, compared with the $24.50 it opened at. The L.A. Times is by far the biggest newspaper in the chain, which also owns the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the Orlando Sentinel. The Baltimore Sun's publisher, Tim Ryan, will replace Beutner in Los Angeles.

The newspapers are all big-city metro newspapers, struggling to grow (or stop shrinking, for that matter) in an increasingly winner-take-all media ecosystem. The papers' online growth have been particularly problematic. Tribune Publishing has only 70,000 digital subscribers – compared to the New York Times, which has more than 1 million.

And the L.A. Times was underperforming to a far greater degree than other papers.

Beutner's defenders say that he was trying to grow the paper by investing in it and that the Chicago corporate overlords were too impatient.

"They think that he could have been making more money for them," Riordan says. "Sure, he could make more money by making it into a terrible newspaper. And, of course, you have to give him time."

But the move to get rid of Beutner may be more personal than financial. According to Doctor, he was not getting along with newish Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin:

While Beutner had pushed forward strongly with civic involvement, aiming to reshape the Times into a leading public citizen, Tribune leadership felt his contrarian spirit at every turn. While Griffin has been rebuilding his central team, largely in Chicago, the feeling just got stronger: Beutner wasn’t a team player. Whether on nuts-and-bolts matters like budgeting or just in terms of personal relationships, the estrangement between Griffin’s team and Beutner’s has grown steadily.

...

While Griffin has sought to standardize and find efficiencies, Beutner, in his one year, has been building a longer-term strategy that aimed to claim greater service to community and audience — and then claim to more advertising and reader dollars. Given the pressures of the market, and of Tribune’s tight financials, the pressure of time exacerbated all the tensions that built up so quickly.

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According to provisions in his contract, Beutner should be leaving the Times with a fairly respectable pay check — roughly $2 million, if you include his $675,000 salary, his one-year severance package (to which he's presumably entitled) and bonuses. 

Beutner had made plenty of changes at the Times. He restored the California section, much to the delight of the newsroom. He launched 20 email newsletters — several of which "have more than 100,000 subscribers and a few have open rates as high as 50 percent — far better than the industry average," Beutner said in a statement posted on Facebook. "Sponsors are finding these newsletters the ideal way to reach an engaged, target audience."

Some of his ideas appeared scattershot, almost desperate. He collected executives, drawn from outside the news realm, at a steady clip. Beutner also arranged for Tribune Publishing to buy the San Diego Union Tribune, which left some scratching their heads.

"Why would you take two failing businesses without a plan to fix them and put them together?" asks media consultant Alan Mutter. "How does that help?"

In the end, Beutner's firing is a continuation of the chaos and tumult at the Times, which was torn apart by Sam Zell's disastrous ownership, then by five years of bankruptcy. 

"It's an ongoing saga that has distracted the company for nearly a decade, at the time when the traditional newspaper business has been collapsing," Mutter says. "It’s the last thing the company needs."


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