Philanthropist’s 2nd Bid to Convert L.A. Paper to Locally Controlled Nonprofit Fails

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September 8, 2015; L.A. Weekly

When Austin Beutner was hired as publisher of the Los Angeles Times a little more than a year ago, it left some scratching their heads. A former deputy mayor and then failed mayoral candidate with no publishing experience, the choice was in some ways surprising to many. His tenure, which ended today, punctuated by his firing, was short, but that may have had more to do with the company he keeps and divergent intentions with Tribune Publishing than with any lack of vision or seasoning.

Ken Doctor of Capital New York 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 Eli Broad, who was last spotted trying to buy the Times with Mr. Beutner himself, which they intended to run as a nonprofit. It’s unclear if the latest offer was connected to Beutner in any way, but the Tribune Publishing board may have seen a conflict of interest.

It’s a little on the hinky side as far as professional ethics is concerned, according to Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC’s School of Communication and Journalism. “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.”

Eli Broad, of course, is a philanthropist and one of the country’s richest men. Though it was not mentioned in these articles, this was not Broad’s first bid for the paper; his previous bid was made in 2013, was also in conjunction with Beutner, and was made with the same intention of transforming it into a locally-controlled nonprofit, so this latest move could not have been a surprise. Back then, reporting suggested that Broad was only really interested in the Times and might even sell off other titles.

So perhaps it was seen as a threat by the CEO of Tribune Publishing, who some speculate had a fundamental disagreement with Beutner regarding what it would take to turn the publication around. As Doctor comments:

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.

Meanwhile, moving quickly, Tribune Publishing named Beutner’s replacement in Timothy Ryan, publisher of the company’s Baltimore Sun Media Group. He will be specifically charged with aligning the California News Group with the rest of Tribune Publishing.—Ruth McCambridge