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Beutner says LA Times needs to ‘move fast’ to survive the digital age

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Austin Beutner, who was named the 14th publisher of the Los Angeles Times in August, told a lunchtime gathering of business and civic leaders at Town Hall Los Angeles on Wednesday he's determined to rapidly transform the paper for the digital age and increase the newspaper's role in the city's civic life.

“We have to be very different in digital than we were in print,” Beutner said. "We will work through every section we have.” 

Beutner was a unique choice to lead the Times, because he was seen as someone more likely to own the paper than to manage it. He's never worked in the newspaper industry, going back and forth between jobs in government and business and even briefly running for mayor in the last election.

Last year, Beutner tried buy the Times, as part of a group that included the billionaire Eli Broad, and Wednesday Beutner said that failed bid led to his appointment as publisher.

“As many of you know we had been having conversations about maybe a local group purchasing the paper," Beutner said. "That came to naught. But those conversations morphed into, 'Well you have a conviction about this, why don’t you step up and give this a try.'"

Beutner's biggest move so far has been to bring back the California section,which his predecessor stopped printing in 2009. The return of the locally-focused section was popular with Times staffers and a signal, Beutner said, of the paper's new focus on covering California and Los Angeles.

"We need to own the California conversation," he said.

Beutner also said it's a conversation he wants to be a part of, by providing input on the content of the paper's editorial pages. 

“I care about the community and I’ve been engaged with this community and I have a view, and I share that view with our opinion group,” Beutner said. “Over time, we’re going to find a way to work together.”

Beutner acknowledged some tension with editorial page editors, because they have not been used to working under publishers that were so involved in the editorial section.

"They're not quite in the same rhythm as me yet," he said.

Op-ed editor Sue Horton recently announced she will leave her post in mid-December, to take a job at Reuters. No replacement has been named.

Focus on digital expansion

Beutner comes to the Times, beset by sharp drops in circulation and advertising revenue, at a very difficult moment.

"The challenge for us is the newspaper industry is not an easy business to be in today,” Beutner said. "Our erosion continues in print advertising."

The Times' total daily paid circulation plummeted from 776,799 in 2008 to 498,503 last year, according to the Audit Bureau. 

Beutner revealed it costs $75 million a year to run the Times' newsroom - an expense the digital side is far from being able to support.  

Beutner said he will try to leverage the size and experience of the Times' newsroom to create digital journalism that people will not only want to read, but will also make money. 

He gave the example of Mike Allen's daily e-mail newsletter about Washington politics, The Politico Playbook, which he said sells sponsorships for around $15,000 each. 

“In the course of the year that’s five million dollars," Beutner said.  “Those pennies and nickels, we’re going to have to stack them very carefully, but they’re going to add up to real money if we do it carefully.”

Beutner said the Times new weekly e-newsletter, Essential California, will morph into a daily newsletter and next week the paper will publicly launch a new website, HS Insider, that will include contributions from students at 41 high schools.

He also said the Times wants to create a "second-screen" experience where someone could be watching a USC football game on one screen and on another, they would be viewing content from Times' reporters who cover the team.

“We have to be very different in digital than we were in print,” Beutner said.

Beutner's focus on new digital initiatives comes in a sharp contrast to former Orange County Register publisher Aaron Kushner, who left in October after a tenure that emphasized print over digital.

The strategy seems to have failed spectacularly, with Kushner's successor writing bluntly in a memo Wednesday announcing about 100 layoffs on the business side that the company is "not profitable."

It's not clear if Beutner's strategy will be any more successful, but he emphasized the need to act quickly and decisively.

"We need to move pretty fast," he said. "These changes we’ve talked about need to happen now.” 

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