Austin Beutner at Columbia Journalism School (video)


After listening to Austin Beutner make his case now a couple of places, I'm starting to think that his firing as publisher of the LA Times might turn out to be a real tragedy for the paper. Unlike the suits at Tribune Publishing, he had a coherent strategy for the digital future in Los Angeles. Create a strong media and journalism brand centered on California, engage it across as many platforms as possible, and don't overvalue tech skills and let technology drive the strategy. The key asset the Los Angeles Times offers its audience now and in the future, he said Thursday at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, is the experience of its journalists. Everything else is teachable. "You may have to retrain people," Beutner said, "but the skill of journalism has nothing to do with the platform on which it is presented."

He spoke in a conversation with Columbia dean Steve Coll and took some questions, including from reporters for the New York Times and Politico. The talk begins at about 5:35 so just drag to skip ahead.

"A forceful and forward-looking publisher," Coll says in his introduction. Also this disclaimer: "He's under certain obligations not to disparage his former employers." But Beutner did say that buying out and laying off the most experienced staff to cut costs, as Tribune Publishing plans for the LA Times, is short-sighted and the opposite of the approach he would take. "Veterans are the core value of your asset," he said. "You need that experience. It is value....Longterm you are losing your most valuable asset. That is not a winning strategy." He also said any publicly owned newspaper would need total buy-in from its board to execute a successful digital strategy because it won't pay off in profits for awhile. The boards (such as Tribune Publishing's) that want cuts that help the short-term bottom line and let them "harvest cash" from the company are going about it wrong.

Beutner and Coll both said that to succeed in a digital transformation, a newspaper company needs some financial "runway" in front of it because there will be turbulence. They named some companies that have runway to work with — Beutner said BuzzFeed and Vox and Vice have no trouble attracting capital — but one newspaper company that doesn't have much leeway left is McClatchy, which owns the Bees here in California. They are "out of the cancer ward and in hospice," Beutner quipped.

He stated his belief that the New York Times and maybe a couple of other media outlets will be able to get away with a digital subscription strategy that creams off an elite national audience. The LA Times' doesn't belong in that race, he says, and instead should be closely identified with California and offer itself as the premier provider of journalism about and for California. He also notes that random internet clicks on LA Times content are "essentially worthless" to the paper, since advertisers won't pay very much too reach them. But advertisers will pay a premium to reach an influential and engaged audience, hence the the roster of sponsored newsletters he started at the LAT.

Interestingly, I thought, he said the Times newsroom was mostly on board with his view of the future, but that the bigger obstacle was outdated thinking by the business side of the paper. He used as an example the business and marketing side not leveraging the annual Festival of Books to gather information on readers, make more of a connection and sign up subscribers. Change has to come faster. "You've got to operate more like a startup," Beutner said.

Selected other highlights:

  • Now that the Times' downtown printing plant prints the San Diego Union-Tribune, the plant's presses roll off more daily papers than any plant in the country. By the way, this is the plant where the paper fought the creation of a union and has gotten rid of a lot of veteran pressmen.

  • Beutner said that Politico's national Playbook replaced the Washington Post as a morning read for him and opened his eyes to the potential of newsletters written by the LA Times staff.

  • He pleads guilty as charged to Chicago's objections that he didn't go along with the strategy coming out of the parent company. He said the board knew when it hired him that he would not be a caretaker. Each newspaper requires a custom strategy, he says.

  • Beutner also said the suggestion, from Chicago, that the LA Times was lagging financially is not what he saw. The numbers were all "on target," he said. "Far as I know they still are."
  • Also: Politico media analyst Ken Doctor on Friday covered Beutner's spate of public comments, including his scheduled appearance Sunday on CNN's "Reliable Sources" with Brian Stelter. "After a mid-month lull, the drama of Tribune Publishing’s future is becoming more public again — on both coasts, and at the mothership in Chicago — highlighting a company still profoundly on the defensive," Doctor writes. One step by Tribune Publishing: hiring a crisis communications adviser to help clean up the PR mess.

    They [company executives] can’t comprehend how a fired publisher in one city could provoke what they see as such a one-sided national public reaction to what they say is a fundamental question of internal company strategy.

    It’s as if CEO Griffin pulled the pin on a hand grenade in firing Beutner, and then left town holding the grenade.

    I am quoted, but the most provocative line is from Doctor on the prospect of Eli Broad and Beutner making a new offer to buy the Times: "I believe the odds are better than even that there will be a new bid by Broad, and a wider group of investors before year’s end."

    Here's the CNN segment.

    More by Kevin Roderick:
    'In on merit' at USC
    Read the memo: LA Times hires again
    Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
    Google taking over LA's deadest shopping mall
    Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
    Recent LAT stories on LA Observed:
    Read the memo: LA Times hires again
    Read the memo: LA Times losing big on search traffic
    Gustavo Arellano, many others join LA Times staff
    Here's who the LA Times has newly hired*
    New seasons of SoCal Connected, Lost LA on KCET
    LA Observed Notes: Times hiring binge, LA Weekly investor sues, media tidbits
    LA Observed Notes: Editor moves, NYT steps on JGold turf, jobs and more
    Jonathan Gold, LA's preeminent food writer, has died at 57