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L.A. Times Publisher Beutner: Self-Serving Pol or Protector of the West’s Top Paper?

Two widely divergent pictures emerged Tuesday regarding the motivation behind the Tribune Company’s ouster of Austin Beutner as publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

To the Chicago-based newspaper publisher, Beutner was a renegade who failed to bolster Times revenues and seemed to be using the newspaper for his personal political ambitions. To Beutner allies inside and outside of the newspaper, the ankled publisher was trying to protect and build the West’s most important news outlet with initiatives that proved too bold and independent for his fusty Midwest minders.

Beutner got the boot Tuesday morning and by afternoon Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin had announced that the one-time investor and political operative would be replaced as publisher of the Times by Tim Ryan, publisher and CEO of the Baltimore Sun and the Morning Call media groups.

Sources also revealed that billionaire Eli Broad had expressed interest in purchasing the Times and its sister publication, the San Diego Union-Tribune, an overture that was not welcomed by the Chicago-based company, the owner of eight newspapers.

Beutner supporters said that his interest in teaming with Broad to run the two California papers was a final straw for the Chicago-based ownership, which did not want to give up the two California outlets because they contribute a large percentage of the company’s circulation and revenues. The Tribune executives purportedly cited concerns about the large tax obligation the company would owe if the L.A. and San Diego papers were sold and would not listen to any alternatives that would have lowered that liability. In this construction, the Chicago leadership feared having their empire severely scaled back and wouldn’t  hear a reasonable offer that could have helped both the parent company and the California papers.

Sources familiar with Tribune Co.’s thinking in ousting Beutner reject this notion, saying that the publisher lost his job because revenues during his 13 month tenure had declined by double digits, while other papers in the chain (in Baltimore, Chicago, Orlando, Allentown, Pa. and other cities) were up slightly or even. “When you are part of a public company, you have to demonstrate growth and plans to drive more growth. He didn’t do that,” said one individual close to Tribune management, who asked not to be named.

Beutner’s appointment last year came as something of a surprise. He had previously worked as an investment banker, a deputy mayor under L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a short-lived candidate for mayor of Los Angeles in 2013.

He pledged to shake up the Times by bringing in non-publishing talent who understood digital communications. Among the outside hires were Johanna Maska, who served in the White House Press Office under President Obama; Nicco Mele, an Internet strategist and entrepreneur who worked as the digital adviser to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and Benjamin Chang, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who had worked at the National Security Council.

Tribune Company officials suggested privately that the political orientation of the new executives suggested that Beutner was positioning himself for a future run for mayor or for governor of California. They presented no specific evidence that the employees had been, or would be, working on future political campaigns. And people inside the Times said there was no evidence of such intentions. “The talk was all about the times and the website and trying to build the audience and revenue,” said one insider, who declined to be named.

Beutner could not be reached for comment, but in a long posting on Facebook he made a case for the achievements of the Times during his brief tenure. He cited the two Pulitzer Prizes the paper won in April, for commentary (by TV critic Mary McNamara) and for feature reporting (for Diana Marcum’s accounts on the California drought) and many new digital initiatives, including 20 newsletters that focus on specific topics, such as local politics, the drought and Hollywood.

What the ouster means in regard to future staffing decisions was also in dispute. People inside the paper have been awaiting news about staff buyouts that they expect to be announced later this month. The Times, which once fielded nearly 1,200 editorial employees, now has something closer to 500. Beutner allies worried that new publisher Ryan would be more willing to cut staff, but Tribune Co. insiders said there was no evidence to support that view.

In a meeting with reporters and editors before noon Tuesday, executive editor Davan Maharaj said he had been assured by CEO Griffin that the shift away from Beutner did not portend massive staff reductions. Maharaj also told the staffers that — like with any change of publishers — there could also be a shift in newsroom leadership. But Maharaj said he had been given no indication his job was in danger.

Ryan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The revelation of a Chicago-L.A. feud was nothing new for veterans at the Los Angeles paper. Beginning a little more than a decade ago, several publishers and top editors of the Times left the paper after feuding with the Chicago-based owners. Much of the tension centered on the desire of the parent company to make deeper staff cuts and resistance to that push from editors, including John Carroll, Dean Baquet and Jim O’Shea. All three of those executives left the paper after defying calls for deeper staff cuts.

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