A group of more than 50 prominent Southern California civic and business leaders sent a letter Thursday criticizing Tribune Publishing Co.'s decision to oust former Los Angeles Times publisher Austin Beutner and calling on the Chicago-based company to reinstate local leadership to the newspaper.
Beutner, 55, a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and former Wall Street investment banker, was fired Tuesday by Tribune Publishing Co. Neither Beutner nor Tribune Publishing officials would say what triggered the leadership change, but people familiar with the situation said it stemmed from a clash over whether The Times and its recently acquired sister paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, should remain within the newspaper chain.
Tribune Publishing Co. appointed Timothy E. Ryan as the new publisher for both papers. Ryan was previously the publisher and CEO of two other Tribune newspapers, the Baltimore Sun and the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call.
"We are writing to you on behalf of a broad cross section of the people of Los Angeles to express our profound disappointment regarding your decision to dismiss Austin Beutner as publisher of the Los Angeles Times," read the letter, signed by former mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan, along with prominent businessmen and philanthropists such as Eli Broad. The "drastic decision" to fire him after about a year "is both curious and disappointing to us."
The letter was sent to Jack Griffin, chief executive of Tribune Publishing Co., and the Tribune Co.'s board.
"Under Austin Beutner, the paper was starting to show a lot about what goes on in L.A.," Riordan said in an interview Thursday. "The people back east seem to have no feeling or knowledge for that at all."
If Ryan is to be a successful publisher, he added, "one of the first things he has to do is get to know most of the people who signed this letter, and get a feel for what he can do to make the L.A. Times a more local newspaper."
Beutner favored local ownership of The Times and had considered a possible purchase of the paper before becoming publisher. The conflict between Beutner and Tribune leadership came to a head when Broad made an overture in recent weeks to buy The Times and the Union-Tribune and spin them off into a separate company.
Tribune rejected Broad's proposal. Broad has declined to comment.
A spokesman for Tribune Co., Matthew Hutchison, acknowledged the company's receipt of the letter. "We are grateful to receive the letter and we are evaluating it," he said.
The letter acknowledged the business considerations of Tribune Publishing, which owns daily newspapers in California, the Midwest and the East Coast. But it argued that a connection with the local community is important to the newspaper's future.
"During this tumultuous time in the journalism profession, we understand that your goals are both to serve a community and to oversee a profitable business enterprise," the letter read. "However, we share Austin's view that the paper's commitment to Los Angeles is a key to its financial success as well."