Austin Beutner. Credit: LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce
The firing of Los Angeles Times publisher Austin Beutner seems so last month now, but civic leaders in the San Fernando Valley and a dozen lawmakers in Sacramento are jumping in the fray. By the way, the efforts are being publicized via release that directs media with questions to Dan Schnur, the former Republican strategist and nonpartisan candidate for Secretary of State who is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and founder and director of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll series.
The Valley leaders sent an open letter to Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin and his board of directors lamenting the loss of Beutner as head of the Times: "For the first time that we can remember, the publisher of the Times actually came to the Valley and met with Valley leaders seeking our input about topics of most consequence to us and the many other residents of the Valley. This input was enthusiastically provided and graciously received."
As business and civic leaders of the San Fernando Valley, we believe that the decision to terminate Austin Beutner as publisher of the Los Angeles Times was short-sighted and detrimental to the residents and businesses of our Valley…
When we read about Austin’s termination we were shocked and extremely disappointed. In the short time that Austin served as publisher, we have seen very positive improvements in the layout and overall presentation of the paper. Additionally, through the introduction of distinguished speaker events sponsored by the Times and the book club that Austin created, he has stepped out and embraced the community which in turn has elevated the profile of the paper in the eyes of City and Valley residents.
￼We sincerely hope that you will consider the positive effects that Austin brought to the paper in such a short period of time and will ensure that local leadership and control is part of the future of the Los Angeles Times. Local leadership is an issue of great importance and will continue to be a priority for the Valley.
The signers include some former City Hall commissioners from the Valley, ex-sheriff Lee Baca, ex-assemblyman Richard Katz, ex-councilman Dennis Zine and Valley Industry and Commerce Association president Stuart Waldman. A similar letter was was signed by 12 state legislators, including incoming Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. It asked Tribune Publishing to consider the value of local ownership of the L.A. Times.
“As stewards of the public good, we cannot sit idly by and watch the demise of one of Los Angeles’s most prominent civic institutions,” says the letter. “Our constituents deserve a newspaper that is led by individuals who represent their communities and strengthens their civic consciousness and pride.”
Meanwhile, Zócalo columnist Joe Mathews, a former LA Times reporter whose mother Linda Mathews worked there even longer than he did, writes in a piece today that Beutner was trying to create a kind of media and political entity at the Times. We'll never know how it might have turned out, he laments.
The available evidence suggests that Beutner and his team were in the early stages of an effort to transform the Times into the linchpin of a larger statewide civic entity that combined elements of a political operation and a media outlet.
Beutner’s effort was so ambitious—he had created an entity called the California News Group that also included the Tribune-acquired San Diego Union-Tribune and looked eager to add other media outlets across the state—that it was likely to fail. But the effort might have opened doors to a different media future in the state. California’s newspapers desperately need to transform themselves into more ambitious, and more activist civic entities—both to raise scandalously low levels of civic engagement in our communities and to ensure the papers’ relevance and survival.
Beutner, in his own writings and public statements, was emphatic in saying that the Times needed to be much more engaged in California communities and in political conversation. And the team of he assembled at the Times had little experience in newspapers, but would have been a welcome addition to any political campaign: Nicco Mele, well-known for his work with Howard Dean; Ben Chang, formerly of the National Security Council; former Obama aides Johanna Maska and Alejandra Campoverdi; Los Angeles City Hall aide Suzy Jack; and journalist-turned-immigrant activist Jose Antonio Vargas. He also hired another Southern California political player, Renata Simril, as his “chief of staff”—a job title common in government but unfamiliar to publisher’s suites.
Then this newspaper campaign went to work. The Times moved to put on more public events. Money was raised from foundations to support news coverage. Following the practice of political interest groups, the Times began to compile its own ratings—with letter grades—of local politicians. Beutner’s Times, like most modern campaigns (and not a few newspapers competing online), tried to create constituencies for itself, or communities of interest, via more than 20 distinct products separate from the paper (“verticals”) covering everything from food to education to race. In an attention-grabbing bit of pandering, a writer was even hired to cover “Black Twitter.”
Some of this raised eyebrows among traditional journalists. But this political turn for a newspaper isn’t new. It’s a return to the past—and a healthy turn at that.