Austin Beutner out as LA Times publisher in Chicago power play*

Breaking, updated post

austin-beutner-almeida-nyt.jpgHere they go again in the culture rift between the Los Angeles Times and its Chicago owners. Tribune Publishing chief Jack Griffin is headed to Los Angeles this morning to oust Austin Beutner as publisher of the Times and replace him with someone more agreeable to Chicago. The new publisher is expected to be Tim Ryan, publisher since 2007 of the Baltimore Sun, one of Tribune's newspapers. In the Times newsroom, where Beutner is viewed as a sometimes-difficult boss but a significant local player who innovates and cares deeply about the paper's digital future, I expect this will hit like a bomb. One reason is that it echoes the stumbles by Tribune Company almost a decade ago to rein in LA and make the Times act more like Chicago. We all know how that went and how it ended.

Today's move, I'm told, follows a secret overture to the Tribune Publishing board in the past two weeks by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, a Beutner friend, to buy the LA Times from Tribune and take the paper private with Beutner in charge. That move, which would have left Tribune Publishing as a much smaller company, was rejected by the board, which includes Eddy Hartenstein, the former Times publisher and Tribune CEO who brought Beutner into the paper.

Beutner's exit has not yet been officially announced so we don't know how the Chicago folks will characterize it and what, if anything, Beutner will say in a statement.

His impending departure was first reported this morning by Politico's Ken Doctor, who writes that Hartenstein is on board with firing Beutner. Doctor notes that the axing of Beutner just a year into the job, and four months after he engineered the purchase of San Diego's Union-Tribune, "should send shockwaves through the news publishing world." The Times and the Union Tribune together represent about 40 percent of Tribune Publishing's revenue and Sunday circulation, Doctor writes. 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.

From Doctor:

Tribune touted Beutner as a nontraditional publisher — a find pulled out of the worlds of both private equity smarts and deep local and civic connection in L.A. —when his surprising appointment was announced. Beutner’s hiring, just one week after Tribune split from the parent company, we were told, was symbolic of the new post-split Tribune.

The abrupt leave-taking raises a wider question about Tribune Publishing’s ability to transform itself. As the third largest U.S. newspaper group, with nine largely metro properties, its fortunes are closely watched within the industry....Now, with Beutner out and the jobs of the top echelon that he just hired on in question, Tribune will have to start over in Los Angeles. That’s a daunting proposition, given all the turnaround issues CEO Jack Griffin faces throughout the company.


So why, with that complex of a turnaround headache would Griffin change horses in L.A.? Observers of the internecine warfare can tick off lots of issues that lie in the background of the move.

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.

In part, that’s a profound difference in strategic thinking; what kind of products and services would these newspaper companies offer their audiences and advertisers? And that makes this just another chapter in the long-running Chicago–L.A. split that has characterized Tribune ever since its acquisition of Times Mirror papers, anchored by the Times, in 1998.

While Griffin has sought to standardize and find commonsense 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.

The reason this all sounds familiar is that Tribune, almost a decade ago, got its Chicago panties in a twist about Los Angeles not toeing the line and sent a succession of publishers and editors out west to clean up LA. This led to a tumultuous and embarrassing era which begat Sam Zell, and the bankruptcy of Tribune, and the spin-off of the Times and other Tribune newspapers into a new publishing company that has not proven very attractive to investors.

Since he took over a year ago, saying "if they’re looking for a caretaker, they picked the wrong guy,” Beutner, 55, has been the public face of a revival of the LA Times journalism brand. He has been the subject of numerous favorable profiles, he got credit for bringing back the California section and an emphasis on owning California news coverage, and he pushed the Times further down the road toward a digital future. Beutner moderated a well-received public discussion with Gov. Jerry Brown about the drought and he's the face of the paper's new book club. It was Beutner who announced the purchase of the Union-Tribune in San Diego. This year, Times staffers also won two Pulitzer Prizes and a number of other awards.

Doctor wrote in May that Beutner was emerging as a "regional news leader to be watched nationally….Most importantly, he offers a fresher strategic view of the role and the business of one-time monopoly print newspaper companies as they fully embrace the digital future." Beutner was a proponent of the idea that the successful news enterprises of the digital age will focus on a core strength or geographic area — in the LA Times' case, that was Southern California.

The Times has jumped in all the way on Beutner's embrace of email newsletters as a way to both reach more readers and attract new advertisers. The morning news round-up that goes out under the name of editor Davan Maharaj has something north of 100,000 subscribers and the Essential California email newsletter has about 70,000, I'm told. The newsletters have started to bring in some major advertisers. Beutner also got credit for the editorial page getting a bunch of ink for giving letter grades to Mayor Eric Garcetti and other politicians. Just last month, Beutner announced a new education initiative for the Times.

According to sources in Tribune Publishing and the LA business community, Beutner's plans for the Times faced the obstacles of Tribune's outdated technology, meddling from Chicago and the need to share revenue with the central headquarters. The Times is by far the largest newspaper in the chain and provides Washington, national, foreign and entertainment coverage to smaller papers such as the Chicago Tribune. The Times, as I have reported before, no longer owns its iconic downtown building and pays rent to a Tribune real estate arm.

Some of Beutner's moves and the hiring of deputies with political experience have led to speculation both at the Times and in the circle of California politics junkies that Beutner still yearned to make an impact in elective office. Remember, he served as an unpaid deputy to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for a time and then briefly ran for mayor himself in the 2013 campaign. Beutner helped lead the blue-ribbon panel that advised City Hall on needed structural changes, he was an active contributor to political campaigns before he became publisher, and he continues to play a role on the school reform issue.

The hires with political connections include Beutner's chief of staff, Renata Simril, who came from City Hall by way of the Dodgers; VP of Projects Suzy Jack from City Hall; Times spokeswoman Johanna Maska from the Obama Administration; and Emerging U.S. managing editor Alejandra Campoverdi also with ties to the Obama Administration. Nicco Mele, the Senior Vice President and Deputy Publisher, worked for Howard Dean's campaign and Ben Chang, the new VP and Events Editor, worked for nearly two decades as a State Department Foreign Service Officer and at the White House National Security Council in the Bush and Obama Administrations.

Broad first surfaced as a possible buyer of the Times during the darkest days of Tribune Company ownership when Los Angeles magnates such as Broad, Richard Riordan and David Geffen began arguing that the paper needed local ownership. In 2013, Broad was said to be joining Beutner in an overture to buy the Times and run it as a non-profit. As recently as last year, Broad was still publicly interested. The price has come down as the Times was spun into the new Tribune Publishing Company, and as the new company's market value continued to fall, but any buyer might still be pressured to buy the entire company rather than peel off its single biggest revenue generator, the LA Times. Kind of hard to see what Broad would want with an entire chain of shrinking newspapers.

What I've been told is that an overture from Broad for just the Times and the San Diego paper went to the Tribune Publishing board sometime in the past couple of weeks and was rejected. The board then apparently backed Griffin's decision to push Beutner out and move on.

From the coverage when Hartenstein announced Beutner's hiring last summer:

“I wanted to find someone who was clearly steeped and invested in the city, and who has the same belief that I do, which is that a democracy doesn’t work without a vibrant Fourth Estate,” said Hartenstein, who was publisher for six years.

In an interview Sunday, Beutner described himself as “a news junkie” who has read The Times regularly since he moved to Southern California in 2000.

“I start my morning with a bowl of cereal and the newspaper laid out on the table in front of me,” he said.


“I come to listen, learn and work with a lot of the talented folks who are there,” he said. “I don’t have preconceived notions. I know we’ll continue to be faced with hard choices.”

Noting that he reads The Times on his smartphone or on a tablet as well as in print, Beutner said digital technologies offer “real business opportunities for us.”

The Chicago Tribune is also reporting the news, without mention of Ryan as Beutner's successor.

In a major newspaper industry shakeup, Austin Beutner was fired Monday as publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune, sources close to the situation said.

Beutner, who had been heading up the largest newspaper in the Chicago-based Tribune Publishing chain, was let go for what sources said was lagging financial performance and a series of expensive executive hires seen by some as a prelude to a potential political run for the city's former deputy mayor.

No successor has been named, according to sources, leaving the California News Group in limbo as Tribune Publishing looks to realign those operations with its broader portfolio, where the Chicago Tribune and other properties have outperformed it financially.

Lagging financial performance after one year? With the lucrative end-of-year months still to come? Hmmph.

* 8:30 update: The Times confirms that Beutner is out in story that carries the byline of managing editor Marc Duvoisin. That tells you how big this is.

Tribune Publishing Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times, has decided to fire Austin Beutner, the civic leader and former Wall Street investment banker who became publisher and chief executive of the newspaper last year.

Tribune executives were to meet with Beutner on Tuesday morning.

A Tribune spokesman declined to comment on the firing or on who would succeed Beutner.

Within the past few weeks, Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad approached Tribune with an offer to purchase the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune and operate the two papers as a separate company. The proposal was rejected.

Beutner had engineered Tribune’s purchase of the San Diego paper in May, part of a strategy to consolidate Southern California newspapers under common ownership as a way to reduce production and distribution costs and generate revenue for digital initiatives. The two papers comprised the newly formed California News Group under Beutner….

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