The Los Angeles Times, for decades a microcosm of the downward spiral of the print news industry, suffered its latest gut-wrench this morning with the announcement that publisher and chief executive Austin Beutner has been fired by the paper’s Chicago-based overlords after just 13 months on the job. The announcement came late this morning after the ouster was reported in sharply divergent stories in the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Tribune Publishing owns both papers. The firing was first reported by Politico, whose media reporter Ken Doctor noted that the move “should send shockwaves through the publishing world.”
The shakeup reflects not only a historic and seemingly intractable culture clash between Chicago and Los Angeles, but the larger crisis confronting newspapers across the country as advertisers follow readers away from print to online sources of news and information. Beutner was hired in August 2014 by Tribune chief Jack Griffin with much fanfare. The one-time deputy L.A. mayor and Wall Street financier made an immediate splash by orchestrating the purchase of the San Diego Union-Tribune, which he also ran, under the umbrella of the California News Group. The move was seen as a way to control mounting costs and offer more value to advertisers and was hailed as an example of Beutner’s forward-thinking leadership in bringing the faltering papers into favor with the bottom-line focused team on North Michigan Avenue. Tribune Publishing itself recently had been spun off from the parent company to isolate its holdings in print.
Beutner was credited with refocusing the L.A. Times on local coverage, including the film and television industries that drive business. Like many of the country’s largest dailies, the Times had been slow to adjust to competition from the Internet. A series of top editors came and went and in 2000 the Times-Mirror company, once proudly the domain of the Chandler family, was sold to Tribune. That was followed by the Sam Zell fiasco, when the real estate mogul leveraged the company into bankruptcy.
The Los Angeles paper saw a succession of top editors (including the well-liked John Carroll and the current New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet), who bridled at the constant pressure to trim budget and reduce staff. Under Carroll and Baquet the paper won 13 Pulitzer Prizes while eliminating over 200 jobs in a contracting newsroom and raising profits.
A similar revolving door has served the publisher’s office, followed by more cuts. Beutner was credited with increasing coverage of the drought that has wreaked havoc on the state, as well as with substantively and creatively beefing up the paper’s online initiatives. In recent weeks, Los Angeles arts philanthropist Eli Broad had approached Tribune, according to reports, offering to buy the Times and Union-Tribune outright with Beutner at the helm, but was rebuffed.
The L.A. Times this morning reported Beutner’s game plan for the paper as focused on long-term survival. The Tribune story underscored the friction between Beutner and the home office and suggested that the publisher’s hires revealed an eye toward possibly returning to public office, rather than the well-being of the paper. Tribune also said the company was not satisfied with the Times‘ financial results.
Beutner didn’t come from the journalism establishment. Born in New York, he grew up in Michigan, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1982 with a degree in economics and worked at the Blackstone Group private equity firm, at 29 becoming the global company’s youngest partner. He later founded Evercore Partners, another financial powerhouse, and moved to Los Angeles. Beginning in 2010, he was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to be deputy mayor for economic development, a $1-a-year position he stayed in for 15 months.
The Times and the Union Tribune are key to Tribune Publishing, representing some 40% of revenue and Sunday circulation, according to Politico’s Doctor. The stock price has already fallen to half of what it was when Tribune Publishing split off from the old Tribune Company a year ago, to around $11 a share.
Beutner’s successor is Baltimore Sun publisher Timothy Ryan, according to the announcement late this morning. The Sun is another Tribune property.