Dodgers
Plaschke: Vin Scully is a voice for the ages
BUSINESS

Publisher Austin Beutner is fired after a yearlong drive to reshape The Times

Los Angeles Times Publisher Austin Beutner was abruptly fired Tuesday after leading a yearlong drive to reshape the media company by emphasizing digital experimentation, a deeper connection with the community and efforts to cultivate ardent readers in the belief that advertising would follow.

Jack Griffin, chief executive of Tribune Publishing Co., parent company of The Times, met with Beutner in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning to give him the news.

Beutner’s successor, Timothy E. Ryan, is the 15th publisher in the 134-year history of The Times.

Neither Beutner nor Tribune Publishing officials would elaborate on what triggered the leadership change, but people familiar with the situation said it stemmed from a fundamental clash over whether The Times and its recently acquired sister paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, should remain within the newspaper chain.

Ryan, 56, comes to Los Angeles from Baltimore, where he was publisher and CEO of the Baltimore Sun and the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call, both Tribune papers. A 30-year veteran of the industry, he previously held senior management posts at the Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer. He will serve as publisher of both The Times and the San Diego paper.

Ryan said it was “a privilege” to lead the two papers and said of The Times: “If there’s any charge, it’s to make sure that we take this great newspaper, on whatever platform, and extend it out well into the future.”

The new publisher also said The Times should maintain its long tradition of foreign reporting. “We’ve got people from all over the world here, so, really, that global coverage is a local story,” he said. “I think it’s very important, and that sets the L.A. Times apart.”

Beutner, 55, an L.A. civic leader and former Wall Street investment banker, became Times publisher 13 months ago. Since then, he had chafed at Tribune’s management structure, in which important decisions about technology and other issues flowed from the Chicago headquarters.

He favored local ownership of The Times and had explored a possible purchase of the paper before becoming publisher. In that role, Beutner engineered the purchase in May of the San Diego paper, which joined The Times as part of the newly formed California News Group under his leadership.

The acquisition made the Southern California market more important than ever to Tribune’s future. The California papers together account for 37% of the newspaper chain’s Sunday circulation and one-third of its revenue.

The conflict between Beutner and Tribune leadership came to a head when Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad made an overture in recent weeks to buy The Times and the Union-Tribune and spin them off into a separate company.

Under such a scenario, Beutner would probably have continued to lead the two papers.

Tribune rejected Broad’s proposal. Broad declined to comment Tuesday.

Hamed Khorsand, an analyst with Woodland Hills research firm BWS Financial, said he thought Broad may not be ready to give up his efforts to acquire The Times and Union-Tribune. With a net worth that Forbes estimated at $7.4 billion, Broad has the resources to buy the entire company. Tribune Publishing’s market capitalization — the value of all its stock — is about $292 million.

“Eli Broad could come in and offer for the entire company and break it into pieces,” Khorsand said. “I wouldn’t write him off, I think he’s still in play. I think it’s even more in play now that Beutner was let go.”

In the end, Beutner’s departure was quick and unceremonious. He presided over his normal 8 a.m. start-of-week meeting with senior staff, at the end of which he said, “This is the last one of these I’ll be doing for a while.”

Shortly afterward, Griffin told him he was being terminated.

By midmorning, a human resources officer was asking Beutner to surrender his company badge and quickly vacate his second-floor office.

During his 13 months as publisher, Beutner sought to offset a long decline in print advertising dollars with ventures designed to reach deeply engaged “communities of interest” that he hoped would prove alluring to advertisers.

He hosted public events, including an hourlong televised conversation with Gov. Jerry Brown, and The Times launched email newsletters on topics such as the Dodgers and the California drought. He also worked with the Times newsroom to deepen coverage of issues of special interest to Southern California readers, including politics, education and race.

Tribune does not provide financial details on its individual properties, and Beutner declined to discuss The Times’ financial performance under his leadership. But he said his ideas were bearing fruit.

“In my view, we had made enormous strides to breathe life back into the institution,” he said. “It’s working. Rome wasn’t built overnight.”

The Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that company leaders were unhappy with some of Beutner’s staffing moves, including the hiring of Nicco Mele as deputy publisher overseeing digital initiatives, and Johanna Maska as vice president of marketing and communications.

Mele, a digital campaign strategist, served as an advisor to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Maska served in the White House Press Office under President Obama.

Citing unnamed sources, the Tribune story said the “political undertones” of those hires had engendered suspicion that Beutner — who once explored a run for mayor of Los Angeles — was angling for the governor’s seat.

In interviews Tuesday, Beutner denied such ambitions and said his spending came in under budget and that Tribune bosses approved of his hiring choices.

“None of the hires were made without their knowledge and concurrence,” Beutner said. “And it was working. So what’s wrong with the picture? I’m not sure.”

Among Los Angeles leaders, Beutner’s sudden firing rekindled old frustrations about out-of-town ownership of a prized Southern California institution. Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he was deeply disappointed. He regarded the move as the doing of a Chicago corporation “that has no interest in this town,” he said.

“The Tribune bought this newspaper and ransacked it,” Villaraigosa said. Under Beutner, he said, “the newspaper is focused on our town again. Clearly they were afraid of local ownership.”

Another former mayor, Richard Riordan, also said firing Beutner was a mistake.

“What the L.A. Times needed was to become more and more a Los Angeles newspaper, and that’s what Austin Beutner was aiming toward,” he said.

Media analyst Ken Doctor described Beutner’s departure as “a small tragedy for American journalism.”

“Tim Ryan may try to keep some initiatives alive, but he is not a Los Angeles leader,” Doctor said. “He is being brought in to get the profit of the paper up, which in a time of continuing downfall in advertising means cutting.”

A New York native with an economics degree from Dartmouth College, Beutner worked as a financial analyst for Smith Barney and later became the youngest partner at Blackstone Group in New York, one of the world’s largest private equity firms.

He co-founded the New York investment banking firm Evercore Partners and moved to Los Angeles in 2000 as the company expanded. In 2006, he reportedly made more than $100 million when the company went public.

After recovering from a broken neck sustained in a bicycling accident, Beutner devoted himself to civic and philanthropic ventures. Under Villaraigosa, he accepted a $1-a-year salary as the city’s “jobs czar.”

He was appointed publisher in August 2014, a week after Tribune Co. spun off the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and eight other daily papers into a stand-alone company, Tribune Publishing. (The parent company retained its broadcast properties and was renamed Tribune Media.)

Marshall Sonenshine, managing partner of New York investment bank Sonenshine Partners, said it’s not uncommon for companies to change leadership when they’re struggling, as Tribune Publishing is. The company’s stock has fallen more than 50% this year amid declining ad revenue and profit.

“The stock market has told the entire Tribune Publishing that your company is underperforming,” Sonenshine said. “So much of the value of the company was on the West Coast, where Beutner was. You’re bound to have some conflict.”

Sonenshine said he wouldn’t be surprised if Tribune Publishing ended up selling The Times and Union-Tribune.

“I always thought the Tribune company was going to downsize,” he said. “Maybe this is one of the catalysts that makes that happen.”

Beutner would not say whether he would be part of a future bid to buy the newspaper.

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

Times staff writer Chris Kirkham contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:30 p.m.: Updates with additional details and background.

3:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with quotes from Austin Beutner's Facebook post. 

11:09 a.m.: This article has been updated with quotes from Austin Beutner.

This article was originally posted at 8:15 a.m.

91°