Rieder: A ‘small tragedy’ for journalism in Los Angeles – USA TODAY
Los Angeles wants its newspaper back.
Who can blame it?
All newspapers have been rocked by the disruption brought on by the digital age. But the Los Angeles Times in particular has been frequently engulfed by turbulence since local owner Times Mirror sold it to Chicago-based Tribune Co. in 2000. Much of the tension has stemmed from Chicago-mandated cuts in the operation of the Times, considered one of the nation’s top newspapers.
The latest skirmish came last week when Tribune Publishing CEO Jack Griffin abruptly firedTimes publisher Austin Beutner. Soon, several of Beutner’s key hires were gone, and this week the Poynter Institute’s Jim Warren, a former Chicago Tribune editor and Washington bureau chief, reported that another round of staff reductions was imminent.
Not amused, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a resolution calling for a restoration of local ownership of the paper. Referring to the selection of Timothy Ryan, who had been serving as publisher of Tribune’s Baltimore Sun, to succeed Beutner, the supervisors declared, “The appointment of a publisher transferred from outside of the Los Angeles area, and the continued practice of having key decisions made by a body located approximately 1,750 miles and two time zones away, is clearly not in the best interest of operating, growing and nurturing a local newspaper.”
The previous week, 50 Southern California civic and business leaders signed a letter protesting Tribune’s move.
Ordinarily, the firing of a local newspaper publisher is not a huge deal to the broader universe. But this one is different, because the flap underscores a key issue — the key issue — as the newspaper industry struggles to reinvent itself for the digital world.
It’s clear that simply continuing to cut, cut, cut is not going to work. Newspapers (meaning newspapers on all of their platforms) have to innovate, to try new approaches, if they are going to make it. And that requires time, not simply focusing on the quarterly numbers.
One of the bright spots in the often gloomy world of newspaper news has been the advent of new, wealthy newspaper owners who take large papers private and don’t have to worry about the pressures of Wall Street. Think Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post, John Henry at The Boston Globe, Glen Taylor at Minneapolis’ Star Tribune. When he acquired the Post, Bezos said that the idea was to give the news outlet “runway” to find new answers to vexing questions.
In L.A., Beutner was trying something new. He wanted the Times to own the conversation in the community. He fostered a strategy of civic engagement, trying to cement the news outlet’s role as a key player in galvanizing the community to confront — and solve — serious problems, first and foremost the drought. Events were part of the picture: Beutner personally interviewed Gov. Jerry Brown about the water crisis, a conversation that generated serious attention to the issue throughout the state.
So why was Beutner, a former L.A. deputy mayor and investment banker, kicked to the curb barely a year after his debut? While Beutner and Griffin hardly saw eye to eye, it’s not entirely clear, and Tribune hasn’t said. But it’s widely believed that a major factor was an offer by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad to buy the Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, whose recent acquisition by Tribune Beutner had orchestrated. Beutner was a proponent of the transaction and presumably would have stayed on with the Times and Union-Tribune under Broad. Tribune wanted no part of the deal.
Ken Doctor, a leading media analyst with Newsonomics who broke the story of Beutner’s imminent dismissal, calls the developments “a small tragedy in American journalism.”
For one thing, a switch to private ownership for in these troubled times vould be crucial. Doctor sees the painful newspaper business metamorphosis lasting another three to five years. A wealthy private owner can afford to be more patient than a public company, which needs to make the number. “The only way to maintain control is to cut costs,” Doctor says. “And that isn’t a strategy, it’s a tactic.”
Beutner’s exit also foreshadows the demise of a promising attempt to do something different. “It’s not about Beutner, it’s about the model,” Doctor says.
And that model was a renewed focus on civic engagement. Beutner believed that for a newspaper to regain its business standing, it had to regain its community. The idea was that smarter and deeper journalism combined with community involvement would ultimately lead to new revenue streams.
Would it have worked? Who knows. But it’s just the kind of bold initiative newspapers need to try if they are to endure.
One last thought: While there are ample signs of the decline of newspapers, the outcry in L.A. over Beutner’s firing is a vivid reminder that they still have an important role to play in our civic life, if only they choose to — and can afford to — do so.