By Sue Pascoe
Palisadian Austin Beutner, 54, was appointed publisher and CEO of the L.A. Times in August, and he has already spearheaded a major change. The “California” section is back, replacing the ill-defined “LATExtra” section.
“We’re going back to our roots—California and Los Angeles,” said Beutner, who is the first of 14 publishers since Otis Chandler to actually live in the City of Angeles.
Beutner, like Chandler, was never a journalist; he graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in economics and became wealthy working for several Wall Street firms.
“I believe in the press,” said Beutner, who co-founded Evercore Partners, a New York investment banking firm in 1996. “I’m committed to guiding the newspaper into the next generation.”
From the 1960s through the 1980s, publisher Chandler reinvested in the Times, beefed up the editorial team and made sure the paper was covering all sides of the issues. At its peak, the Times was considered one of the top papers in the country.
An economic downturn in the early 1990s, coupled with in-fighting among members of the Chandler family (who owned the controlling interest in the
paper), started the paper on a downward spiral. The slide continued after the Times was sold to the Tribune Company in 2000.
That was the same year Beutner moved to the Highlands with his wife and two children. They now have four: the youngest is in sixth grade, the oldest a high school senior. Ten years ago the family moved to the Riviera neighborhood. Beutner was in the process of giving his son’s college essay a final look when he spoke to the Palisades News.
During the last decade, the Times has gone through a Tribune bankruptcy (in 2008), a rotating door of editors, staff layoffs and a decrease in paid circulation. Beutner even tried to purchase the paper in 2013.
“I believe the prosperity of the Los Angeles community and the L.A. Times correlate,” Beutner said. “After the merger and bankruptcy, it seemed less likely the paper could remain viable because of the attendant trauma.
“With a stable ownership there was a chance for a new beginning,” he said. “There is a necessity for Los Angeles to have a viable paper.”
Although Beutner wasn’t successful in buying the paper, he was appointed publisher after the Tribune Company merged the Times and eight other daily papers into a stand-alone company, Tribune Publishing Co.
“I’m committed to guiding the newspaper into the next generation,” said Beutner, who admitted, “The business part of a paper is like working a Rubik’s Cube in the dark.”
He worked with publishing companies through prior businesses, but this is his first time as a publisher. “I’m here to learn,” he said. “There’s the saying ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’, so I’m listening carefully.”
Beutner also feels his prior business relationships will help more quickly open doors. His bottom line: “I care deeply about the product.”
He doesn’t foresee any future staff cuts—“the 500 people in the newsroom are the paper’s core and essence”—and promised the paper will continue to do investigative pieces.
“I’m a big believer in the Fourth Estate and asking the hard questions,” he said, recalling how the Bell governance scandal began with the L.A. Times headline: “Is a City Manager Worth $800,000?”
“Our front page becomes the conversation,” Beutner said, noting how Times stories are quickly picked up by radio, television and various websites. “But, the story begins here.”
He has approached the paper with a businessman’s eye, including the transition from print to digital. “It will be another means of distribution,” Beutner said. “Brands, credibility and quality will matter.”
The L.A. Times has an e-newspaper and one of the challenges is making sure the younger generation is aware of the digital format. Another ongoing issue, not only for papers but also for advertisers, is the constantly shifting social media scene. “We need to adopt and be conversant in all of them,” the publisher said.
Before 2007, Beutner was firmly rooted in the business world, but a fluke biking accident in the Santa Monica Mountains left him with a broken neck and a year of recovery time.
“It was a chance to reflect and make a complete shift from business,” said Beutner, who left Evercore to pursue civic and philanthropic avenues. “It was a new chapter in my life: about making a difference in the lives of others.”
In 2010, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed him as deputy mayor of economic development, a “jobs czar” who oversaw 13 city departments. Over the next 15 months, he became a critic of City Hall operations.
“If you asked folks back in the late 1800s who were in the horse and carriage trade how you could improve transportation, they would say you need a faster horse. Then the automobile was invented: it was the faster horse.”
Beutner said that City Hall is looking for the “faster horse,” rather than to the future. “They have dated practices and need to spend money more effectively.”
After that $1-a-year job, Beutner joined the 2013 mayoral race, but pulled out early to spend more time with his family.
In 2012, he served as co-chairman of the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, which was created to address solutions to the city’s budget problems. Serving as his co-chair was Mickey Kantor, a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who described Beutner in a L.A. Times story as “one of the best analytical minds I’ve ever run into. He’s not tied to the past. He’s willing to take chances.”
That same year Beutner founded Vision to Learn, a nonprofit that has given free eyeglasses to 25,000 school children in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Oakland.
But now, his focus is the L.A. Times. “We have four million consumers on Sunday and four million different views on what we did well or what we need to do better,” said Beutner, who urges fellow Palisadians to take a new look at his paper.
“We’re doing our part, but we need support from the community,” he said, and he reiterated why he is committed to his key role: “Papers are the conscience of our society.”