Business & Economy

LA Times publisher and CEO Austin Beutner to be replaced

File: Austin Beutner on stage during the preview of The Broad Stage 2010-2011 schedule at The Broad Stage on April 22, 2010 in Santa Monica.
File: Austin Beutner on stage during the preview of The Broad Stage 2010-2011 schedule at The Broad Stage on April 22, 2010 in Santa Monica.

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The Los Angeles Times is replacing Austin Beutner, its Publisher and CEO.  The news comes as a surprise at the paper, where he had been in the post for a little over one year.

Beutner attended a senior leadership meeting this morning with a "business as usual" attitude, said one of the executives in the room. He thanked the group and left.

On Tuesday, he posted a farewell note to Facebook, confirming he was fired and emphasizing that his leaving is not the result of a mutual agreement. 

In his note, Beutner touted the high points of his stint, including the relaunch of the business and California sections and the Times' recent haul of Pulitzer Prizes. 

"I agreed to become the Publisher and CEO of the Times because I believe in Los Angeles and recognize the unique role the Times plays in our community," Beutner wrote. "It is the civic conscience which holds accountable those with power in Los Angeles, helps celebrate what is good in our community, and provides news and information to help us better understand and engage with the world around us."

Beutner's firing not unforeseen

News of Beutner's departure was first reported by media analyst Ken Doctor, who told KPCC's "Take Two" that Beutner's firing had been "been brewing for a while."

"I think the Times has been on a path that either it was going to become an independent entity — we know Eli Broad made another bid for it to make it private — or Beutner’s string would have run out within another year or so."

Beutner's approach at the Times was different from the other papers owned by parent company Tribune, Doctor said.

"[Beutner said] We’re doing a series on water we’re going to be able to sell people who are doing irrigation and water-related products, and they actually found some of those people. The idea was you first have to invest back into the product and then in the city and then the money will come, and that’s not easy to do in a company that is flailing financially," Doctor said.

Beutner also ran up against suspicion that he was too close to Eli Broad's group that was hoping to purchase the Times, Doctor said.

"How closely associated or not associated Austin Beutner may have been with the Broad group is an open question. Clearly there was suspicion on the Tribune management side that he was too close to this option," Doctor said. "The financial performance the Tribune Company blames on Beutner, but also the sense he was going his own way with his own strategy, and maybe lining up private money in L.A. to secure a different kind of future for the Times."

Praise for civic engagement, blame for flagging revenue

Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised his former deputy for imbuing the newspaper with innovation and a “renewed civic commitment” in his short tenure as publisher.

“The coverage of the city as a whole, whether it was politics or the arts, was just more robust and diverse than it was in the past,” Villaraigosa told KPCC. “I think there was a real commitment to make it an L.A. newspaper again and not a Chicago-focus.”

Villaraigosa said Beutner's firing was the latest example of Tribune’s poor stewardship of the L.A. Times.

“They’ve sucked the blood out of the L.A. Times, taking the profits and destroying the newspaper in the process,” the former mayor said.

He added that the paper had lost a “lot of great reporters” over the course of Tribune ownership and that Beutner had been doing his best to make the Times a destination for top-tier talent.

Mayor Garcetti, who recently received a letter grade of “C”  from the Times’ editorial board,  issued a similar statement of praise:

"Austin Beutner did a great job of making the L.A. Times a local paper again. His vision for our hometown paper in an ever changing media landscape helped ensure a more engaged city. I hope these changes can be maintained with new leadership and I wish Austin the best on his future endeavors."

Leo Wolinksy , former executive editor and managing editor at the Times, said Beutner, who had moved to L.A. in 2000, had the distinction of being the first locally-based publisher of the Times since Otis Chandler, who left his post in 1980.
“Austin’s not a lifelong resident but he espoused a concern for civic engagement and that was a really great goal because that takes the newspaper to what it should be: in the community,” Wolinsky said.

Former L.A. Times reporter and editor Jim Newton said that Beutner did bring strengths to his job, but didn’t live up to hopes that he would revolutionize the business model of the paper in a way that would put it on sounder footing.
“I don’t have a sense he succeeded in that, and there was a lot of disappointment,” Newton said. 

Gabriel Kahn, co-director of the Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said that Tribune might have overlooked concerns they had about Beutner like his perceived coziness with Broad had the newspaper’s financial performance been better.
“But nobody’s got any patience when things are going this south this quickly,” Kahn said.

A farewell and a warning

In 2014, Beutner was hired as publisher, after a career that included investment banking and a stint as deputy mayor under Villaraigosa. The Tribune had just split from its parent company and Beutner set out on an agenda to diversify the paper's platforms and coverage.

“We have to be very different in digital than we were in print,” Beutner said in December. "We will work through every section we have.”

During his time, Beutner started email newsletters and focused on in-person events to spur community talks, telling KPCC's Airtalk that his focus was expanding the diversity of stories and deepening the paper's relationship with its Southern Californian audience.

In his farewell note, Beutner echoed the need for a dramatic shift in the industry:

The newspaper industry will have to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 20.  The fat and redundancies bred over a generation by print monopolies with thick sections of classified ads and full-page print ads are gone.  Cost-cutting alone is not a path to survival in the face of continued declines in print revenue and fierce competition in the digital world. 

The Times and the Chicago Tribune both published stories on Beutner's departure, saying Tribune Company executives were "unhappy with the financial performance of The Times and with Beutner’s high-profile hires."

Tim Ryan, publisher of the Baltimore Sun, will take over as Publisher at the L.A. Times.

This story has been updated.