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The Beutner Fix: Former mayoral candidate wants to make LA Times nonprofit

Austin Beutner is reportedly interested in buying the L.A. Times and turning the newspaper into a nonprofit.
Austin Beutner is reportedly interested in buying the L.A. Times and turning the newspaper into a nonprofit.

There's big news that arrives somewhat late in Hillel Aron's LA Weekly story about a passel of rich suitors who would buy the Los Angeles Times, now that Tribune Company has hired bankers to explore a sale of the company's newspapers.

One of the investment banks that's lending Tribune an assist is Evercore Partners, co-founded by former L.A. mayoral candidate and Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner. And one of the men who wants to buy the L.A. Times  is...Austin Beutner.

From the Weekly:

Beutner now is putting together a group of wealthy Angelenos to make an offer on the L.A. Times and operate it as a nonprofit.

"There is no voice to rival the L.A. Times," Beutner says. "I'd love to see it restored to its prior stature in terms of it being a voice of civic consciousness. And I think the best ownership for that voice is local."

Local is everything to Beutner: local ownership, more local-news coverage. He says he would bulk up coverage of L.A. and Southern California but trim back some foreign and national political coverage in locales where a dozen or more news outlets often cover the same story.

"I think we have the resources to pay an appropriate amount," Beutner says. "I'm not being coy; we haven't seen the books and records yet. ... We'd definitely be prepared to move quickly." It probably can't hurt that Beutner in 1996 co-founded Evercore — the very investment bank hired by Tribune this week to vet prospective buyers.

Which raises the obvious question: Did Evercore get itself hired by Tribune specifically to pitch Beutner and his group as owners?

Beutner is an investment banker who followed the path of pre-crisis investment bankers. Evercore is modern-day Lazard Frères, a client-centric firm that values clients; that was started by Beutner and former Clinton era Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman in 1996; and that has grown even as it's focused on the advisory side of the business — a business that was defined by the ultimate private-public banker, Lazard's Felix Rohatyn (he saved New York City from financial ruin in the 1970s). 

(The irony here is that Rohatyn, as William Cohan points out in his book on Lazard, "The Last Tycoons," didn't get to be Altman's boss at Treasury because he chose to back longtime Lazard client H. Ross Perot rather than throw in with Clinton.)

Beutner clearly wanted to be a Mayor of L.A. in the way that Michael Bloomberg has been Mayor of New York: as someone who could merge civic responsibility with civic improvement.

Bloomberg is the "archetype of a modern big-city mayor," Beutner told me last May when he dropped out of the mayor's race.

What one can't do in politics, one might be able to do with the press. This could be what Beutner is thinking. And adding some special sauce, as Aron reports, is Beutner's desire to not just buy the Times, but turn it into a nonprofit.

Those with long memories will recall that, back in 2006, former L.A. Times editor Dean Baquet took the opportunity of a "Frontline" interview following his departure from the paper to express his pleasure with the nonprofit model (he specifically cited the St.Petersburg Times).

Could this be the game plan for the L.A. Times, which is one of eight papers in the Tribune stable? The arrival of Evercore on the scene — the firm has an office in Downtown L.A., established by Beutner — suggests that the Times could be peeled off, if the nonprofit team can come up with the financing (which shouldn't be a problem).

This would deliver the Times to local ownership and, perhaps more importantly, keep it out of the hands of Rupert Murdoch, who has enough cash to buy all the Tribune papers, but who may encounter some regulatory hurdles with his other media properties.

There's also the fact that, post-bankruptcy, the biggest chunk of Tribune is owned by L.A.-based Oaktree Capital. A smaller piece belongs to J.P. Morgan — and the other bank that Tribune has hired to evaluate selling the papers is...J.P. Morgan! 

It's not hard to see all arrows now pointing squarely at Beutner and his group. Which doesn't mean that another wealthy L.A.  business leader — Eli Broad, perhaps — won't enter the bidding, if it comes to that. But the way the banking side of this is setting up, it's possible that Beutner has been quietly working on this for months.

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