By listening carefully to the new Los Angeles Times publisher at Town Hall Los Angeles Wednesday, it was possible to get a sense of Austin Beutner. It was also possible to see where he may be taking the 133-year-old paper.
It wasn’t easy. Beutner is a cautious speaker, seeming to weigh every word. That’s a trait that didn’t serve him well when he ran for Los Angeles mayor. But it’s just right for an executive trying to turn around a troubled business. He projected a pleasant personality, going over well with the full house of civic leaders at the luncheon.
Beutner isn’t completely happy with the Times’ business section. He said someone told him the Times has an anti business section “and sometimes it seems that way.” But he didn't expand on that.
He intends to play an active role in the deliberations of the editorial board, the journalists who decide on editorial policy, and endorsements of candidates. He said he cares about the community and, “I have a view and I share that view with the eight members of the editorial board.” He says he wants an “open exchange of ideas” and from that “a consensus should form.” He did admit that some of his exchanges with the editors “are more heated than others.”
I got the feeling that Times’ employees shouldn’t delay when Beutner wants something done. Changes, he said, “have to happen now.” He recalled that when he was a top aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he would ask city hall people how a project was doing. He said they replied, “We’re working on it,” meaning they weren’t. “There’s a little bit of that at the Times,” he said.
I was interested in Beutner’s admiration for a daily column of Washington news by Mike Allen of the Politico web site called Playbook. It’s a quick once over of Washington news and chatter and political junkies like me get it in our in our inboxes every day. What’s really innovative about Allen’s column is that is sponsored. Sponsors get plugs throughout the column, in type indistinguishable from that used for news items. Wednesday, the sponsor was the United Arab Emirates, which bought three plugs, concluding by telling how the U.S. and the U.A.E. are teaming up for security. Playbook, said Beutner, sells sponsorships for $15,000, and the enterprise brings in $5 million a year.
I hope he isn’t entertaining that idea for the L.A. Times. But I liked another of his ideas, user generated content, starting with partnering with high school students, first with sports and then with other activities. That reminded me of a great youth journalism enterprise, LA Youth, put out by high school students directed by Donna Myrow from 1988 to 2013. The stories by the young people gave a powerful, honest look at teenage life, dealing with the painful and the fun. If Beutner puts something like that in the Times, he’ll get a lot clicks on the web site and draw young people and their parents to the paper.
Beutner said he got his job when he was talking to Bruce Karsh, who heads Oaktree Capital Management, leading investor in the company that owns the Times, and Eddy Hartenstein, Beutner’s predecessor as publisher. Beutner wanted to buy the Times but instead he became publisher.