About two years ago, investment banker Austin Beutner let it be known that he wanted to buy the L.A. Times. Today, he got the next best thing when he was appointed publisher and CEO of the struggling newspaper.
It was a surprising choice – an outsider with no publishing experience, and a former mayoral candidate who played a major role in the Los Angeles 2020 commission, which presented a laundry list of solutions to the city's major ills, a report that landed with a thud and has been largely ignored.
In an interview with the L.A. Times this morning, Beutner said, “It’s not the job of the publisher to dictate coverage." While that's certainly true, it's hard to imagine Beutner not having any effect on the editorial direction of the paper, even at its most macro level.
The new publisher isn't taking any press calls today. But when we spoke to him about the newspaper in January 2013, he said he'd like to see the Times shift its focus more locally:
"You can see, directionally, where you'd have to reallocate resources. [The Times] spoke of a reporter who'd spent three years in Afghanistan. An important story, no doubt. But a huge investment on behalf of the Times. Huge. By the time you put salary, security, travel, all the things that come with stationing someone overseas...
Could you make an arrangement with the Times of London or the South China Morning Post or anything in between, while you take your resources and say, well, we're gonna cover Los Angeles? That's a resource allocation choice. And I think on the margin, the Los Angeles Times has to talk about Los Angeles, has to talk about California. Afghanistan is not unimportant, but you can't do everything, you can't be everywhere in the first person...
I was disappointed they did away with the California section. Some of that coverage is still in the paper. There's less of it. But I think that's a cornerstone of what the L.A. Times has to be about. Maybe other readers think differently."
Beutner wasn't born in Los Angeles, but has lived here since 2000 – unlike outgoing publisher Eddy Hartenstein, who lives in Westlake Village, which is just outside of L.A.
"Here's the problem," says former L.A. Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky. "Every new change at the L.A. Times was supposed to be the one to save it, and each one got worse. It makes one hesitant to predict what will happen."
But, Wolinsky adds: "The biggest problem at the L.A. Times is the disconnection to the community it serves. So a publisher with strong ties to the community is positive. The issues of conflict of interest, that's always the case with publishers. I would rather wrestle with that problem than with someone who doesn’t care about the community and didn’t have ties to it."
Beutner's big challenge, of course, will be to find a way for to stem the tide of falling revenue. Most American newspapers have seen print ad revenue decrease steadily, often by 5 percent a year. And so in order to stay afloat, newspapers have had to cut costs, i.e. fire people, some of whom are reporters. That leads to smaller newspapers, which leads to less readers.
On the plus side, online ad revenue is increasing — only it's increasing very slowly, and it's unlikely it will ever reach the lofty heights of print ad revenue in, say, the 1990s.
Beutner is keenly aware of this, as he told us in that 2013 interview:
You better be prepared to help ensure there's a transition from the world of print and dollars to the world of digital and pennies, nickels and dimes. I think it's possible. Not without a lot risk.
There aren't too many examples of success. The transition from print, a monopolistic view of the market place to a far more competitive one. A far more fragmented one. But it's possible.
I think there's an equilibrium point for a certain number of news organizations in this region or in the world or in the country. Obviously, the Wall Street Journal is a survivor, the New York Times is a survivor. The L.A. Times should be. California's just too big a marketplace, too important to the world. But it has to be managed differently and has to be built and led into that transition to the digital world, I think more rapidly and in different ways than it has in the past.
So how will Beutner do that? We don't know. He probably doesn't know either.
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A far more immediate question is what the new Beutner regime means for L.A. Times Editor-in-Chief Davan Maharaj, who just so happens to be a former Times foreign correspondent in East Africa. Maharaj is... how shall we put this... controversial? Not well-liked? As many as 48 reporters and editors have left the L.A.Times newsroom in the last year. A few reporters, both current and recent, have said that Maharaj is a big part of the exodus — people just don't like working for him.
"He's very smart but not a people person," says one current reporter, "and [he] tends to get confrontational [and] defensive when people go in to say they have other offers."
Says another reporter:
"The hope has always been that a new publisher would come in and realize the incompetence of Davan. That’s what we’ve been hoping all along."