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The future of the LA Times under Austin Beutner

When 2010 dawned, almost no one in Los Angeles had heard of Austin Beutner. Five years later, the new publisher of the L.A. Times is one of the most powerful and respected people on the civic landscape.

To understand Beutner’s status, consider his appearance at a Town Hall-Los Angeles luncheon. Tickets started at $50, and they sold out. When’s the last time a publisher of the Times sold out any appearance larger than a kitchen table? Heck, who can even name a publisher of the Times since Otis Chandler?

The paper’s spent the better part of a decade hemorrhaging reporters, and Sam Zell’s ownership and the Tribune Co.’s bankruptcy created the consensus that its best days are gone, so some are looking at Beutner like he’s Neo in "The Matrix," the only hope to save LA’s most enduring news organization.

What’s on the table for the future of the 133-year-old newspaper and its much younger website? Just about everything.  After the Town Hall luncheon, Beutner told me, “I made it pretty clear to people that if we’re going to repeat the same habits, we’re not going to get a different outcome.”

Beutner struck quickly, and within two months he euthanized the paper’s LatExtra section, which sounded more like a skin cream than a local section and exemplified all that had gone wrong at the paper. Beutner says it worked for the printing press operators but made little sense to readers. In killing LatExtra and reviving the California section, Beutner gave the impression that the Times might care about local readers.

Beutner told the crowd, “We have to find different ways to tell stories,” and “different” is the operative word. Beutner said the Times’ web data, prepared by gnomes that live in the Buffy Chandler Powder Room at Times HQ, shows that readers most engage with short stories of 100-200 words, and longer explanatory pieces of 1,000 words or more, but don’t like 500- to 700-word stories, which are far more common.

He also said the Times will partner heavily with high schools (the “HS Insider” launched eight days later), and that many sports reporters will have to file more stories.

Anyone familiar with Beutner isn’t surprised by the ambitious agenda. The cutthroat New York financial firm Blackstone made him partner at 29, and President Clinton sent him to Russia to help install a market economy. He co-founded the venture capital firm Evercore, and made more money than most rappers. But after breaking his neck in 2007, he reassessed his life, and went civic, becoming Mayor Villaraigosa’s first Deputy Mayor and giving focus to the wandering administration.

He ran for mayor in 2011, backed out, then partnered with power lawyer Mickey Kantor to helm the 2020 Commission, which last year released two sharply worded reports about LA’s problems.

Beutner is very smart, and sometimes wields his influence in unexpected ways. In 2012 he learned that thousands of local schoolkids with bad grades needed glasses. So he bought a bus, hired eye doctors, and had them travel to schools and give free glasses to kids who needed them. It was the type of problem that could have been analyzed to death, with reams of reports and rounds of bidding. Instead, Beutner acted.

The LA Times, with 500 journalists, a $75m newsroom budget and challenges from every corner of the Internet, is a much more complicated problem. The glasses-for-schoolkids move was impressive, but preparing the LA Times for the future will take a much different kind of vision.

Jon Regardie is executive editor of the Los Angeles Downtown News, where this commentary first appeared in different form.