After Publisher Is Laid Off, The Los Angeles Times Braces for Cuts

Civic and business leaders have complained about The Los Angeles Times’s out-of-town ownership from time to time over the last 15 years, since its purchase by the Tribune Company. Credit Emily Berl for The New York Times
Civic and business leaders have complained about The Los Angeles Times’s out-of-town ownership from time to time over the last 15 years, since its purchase by the Tribune Company. Credit Emily Berl for The New York Times

In January, Jack Griffin, the chief executive of Tribune Publishing Company, took his senior management team to visit The Los Angeles Times, the jewel in his company’s portfolio of newspapers.

At a reception at the newspaper, and a dinner downtown, there was one notable absentee — The Times’s new publisher, Austin Beutner. At meetings the next day, he showed up for just an hour, to make a presentation on his strategy for the paper — one squarely at odds with that of its corporate parent.

Tribune has long pushed to centralize virtually all operations and direct them from headquarters in Chicago, running its newspapers as a group.

Mr. Beutner, 55, a prominent Angeleno who made a fortune in finance and who once served as deputy mayor, was outlining an independent path for The Times that was relentlessly local and focused on better technology, new sections and events.

He was forging close relationships with Los Angeles civic and business leaders who wanted a vibrant Los Angeles Times as part of the fabric of the city. He had driven the acquisition of The San Diego Union-Tribune, part of a plan to dominate journalism in California.

Two weeks ago, he was called to a conference room and fired.

His departure, from a position he had held only a year, widened a divide between The Times and its corporate parent. In Chicago, executives saw him as imperious and defiant, imperiling a centralization strategy that had recently saved the company $75 million, according to a figure it provided The New York Times.

But to many at The Los Angeles Times, Mr. Beutner and his plan represented ambition and optimism after more than a decade of management turnover, layoffs and cost-cutting that had demoralized many employees and reduced the newsroom from 1,200 to its current staff of about 500. The strategy, focused on growth, had quickly yielded more than $1 million in new revenue, and looked poised to yield more, said three people with knowledge of the company’s finances.

Newsrooms everywhere are given to apocalyptic predictions of their own demise. But more than a dozen current and former Times and Tribune staff members — both in the newsroom and on the business side — suggested that The Times was facing a crisis more dire than any it had previously weathered. It has been battered by cutbacks for so long, they said, that it cannot wait any longer for the company’s strategy, which has shown few signs of working, to bear fruit. It must grow its way to the future, they said, not slash.

Their concern is shared by some of the most powerful people in Los Angeles, many of whom Mr. Beutner numbers as friends. They have risen up to unleash what seems like years of pent-up frustration. “Tribune has just destroyed the paper over the years — they sucked the blood out of it — and only over the last year, since Austin became publisher, did it start to feel like a hometown newspaper again,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor in whose administration Mr. Beutner served as deputy mayor.

Mr. Villaraigosa is one of 50 local leaders who signed a letter to Tribune Publishing protesting Mr. Beutner’s firing. The City Council sent its own letter, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution along similar lines. Hispanic groups have expressed concern that Tribune’s Chicago-based management team has little understanding of one of the most important constituencies in Los Angeles.

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Source: The New York Times | RAVI SOMAIYA