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News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Austin Beutner sees bright future for LA Times

by Austin Cross | Take Two®

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About 150,000 bibliophiles, vendors and authors are expected to gather at the University of Southern California on April 18 and 19 for the 20th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Monterey Public Library/Flickr

In a news industry dominated by trendy websites and pay-per-click revenue, and at a time when other print newspapers are closing their doors, the Los Angeles Times believes it has tapped into a strategy for success.

The paper’s new publisher, Austin Beutner, joined the paper from Wall Street. Drawing on his experiences in the corporate world, as well as a little bit of "alchemy," Beutner sees a future in which the news organization convenes communities around their individual interests and delivers information in all the ways they want to receive it: mobile, web, print, live events. And he sees a bright future for the paper.

"We still have the largest single metropolitan daily in Los Angeles; it's called the Los Angeles Times. We still have a very vibrant and engaged customer base. Ninety percent of our subscribers voted in the 2012 elections," Beutner told Take Two.

Beutner spoke with KPCC’s Ben Bergman about the upcoming LA Times Festival of Books, the paper's signature annual event, and the future of print. You can read excerpts below, or listen to the audio for the full interview.

The Festival of Books is a very popular event—150,000 people attend. You charge for some events like your new Ideas Exchange with Malcolm Gladwell. But most of the events are just a dollar or even free. Couldn't you use the revenue that charging an admission would provide?

We sure could. But part of our role at the Los Angeles Times as a civic conscience and that centerpiece for the community is to be a convener, and that we can bring people to engage around books and ideas. We're privileged really to be able to do that [but we'd have to] strike a balance between what we need to do to keep our lights on and the bills paid and give back to the community. So this is for us a heavy investment with the community with the hopes that more people engage with us and more people engage around books and ideas.

I take it this Ideas Exchange will be seen more of from the L.A. Times in the future. Other media companies have been making serious money from live events.

We are looking to publish our news and information around communities of interest.... It may be an event. It may be a story told through video, a podcast, through text or graphics. All those tools to engage and inform we'll be using much, much more than we have in the past. 

Content is expensive to produce. You said it cost $75 million a year to run the Times newsroom. If you only had to rely on your digital revenue, how big would the Times newsroom be?

A lot smaller than it is today. We're in that transition phase where part of what we're doing is to understand how we bring our content differently to sponsors, to partners. 

We did a very powerful story on how produce is farmed in Mexico [that exposed] shocking revelations about how workers are treated and even young children virtually in slavery working in the fields. That's had a big impact, that's changed the way consumers buy produce in this country. That's led Wal-Mart to change its buying practice — the largest company in the world. 
We invested a year and a half, two reporters, an enormous sum of money in that effort. If you add the number of people in print, and we can infer that through use patterns, we probably had a quarter million read all four parts and spend more than 25 minutes on something called a "spinach-y" type topic. That in a newspaper context is interesting. But where else can you gather a quarter million people on the topic of spinach for a half hour? That starts to sound like a "60 Minutes" segment, that starts to sound like an MSNBC show. And all those attract sponsors in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of revenue. So why wouldn't we at the L.A. Times, call something the "Times Investigates" and commit to do a series of these, which we do anyways, [and] take that to a sponsor?

The bulk of your revenue still comes, I gather from print revenue, which for all Tribune papers has been dropping. And last quarter it dropped more than 10 percent as a whole. They don't break it down by paper. Has been more than that or less at the LA Times?

I don't think it's been disclosed, but [it's] every mass media organization. Print is not alone. Whether you look at any of the nightly news shows on the broadcast networks or even 60 Minutes. All of the mass audience shows are declining. Print may be a little faster than some of the other forms but they're in decline. That said, Mark Twain said something about overstating the demise. We still have the largest single metropolitan daily in Los Angeles; it's called the Los Angeles Times. We still have a very vibrant and engaged customer base. Ninety percent of our subscribers voted in the 2012 elections. 

How much longer do you foresee the LA Times publishing a seven-day-a-week paper?

Quite a while. I have an 11-year-old daughter who starts the morning reading the print newspaper. Customers want it  different ways. Some days they'll read the paper. Some days they'll look at it online. They may listen to a podcast of our work on the way to work, in the car or in the train. So we will adapt to those times. We have scale we'll be printing for quite a while. 

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