The sudden dismissal last week of Austin Beutner as publisher of the Los Angeles Times was both troubling and mysterious.
Mysterious because, as of this writing, no good explanation was offered for the canning. After all, it appeared Beutner was doing a great job. He revived the journalistic mission of the Times, oversaw several initiatives and spearheaded the sensible acquisition of the San Diego Union-Tribune, all in a little more than a year.
One semi-obvious reason he got the boot: the appearance of self-dealing. Beutner knows Eli Broad, who made a bid to buy the Times. Broad’s bid was summarily rejected and Beutner was dismissed soon thereafter. That rapid sequence leads one to assume that Tribune Publishing’s CEO concluded that the guy he was paying to run the Times was also sitting on the other side of the table, at least tangentially involved in a buyout deal in which he’d presumably have some stake.
Interestingly, Broad last week told one of our reporters that he was invited to bid by the chairman of Tribune. The chairman, Eddy Hartenstein, is the former publisher of the Times, and he brought Beutner in to replace him as publisher last year. That could have led Tribune’s CEO, Jack Griffin, to conclude that an L.A. cabal – Hartenstein, Broad and Beutner – was trying to wrest ownership of the Times away from Chicago. Perhaps some inside information was being brokered, the CEO may have wondered.
But wait. This semi-obvious reason may not make sense. That’s because the operating assumption for the past year was that Beutner – who’s an investment banker by trade, not a business operator – was brought in as publisher so he could put together a deal. Under this scenario, he would run the Times for a year or so, and with his deeper understanding of the business, he could put together an informed buyout deal, relying on his contacts with civic-minded people, such as Broad, to make the offer. That way, the Times could go into civic hands willing to pay a good price and Tribune could be on its way to an orderly disposal of its parts. After all, the sum of Tribune’s parts is likely greater than the whole; there’s scant economic reason for Tribune’s handful of metro daily newspapers to be combined in one company since they don’t even get their paper from the same mill.
In this scenario, Beutner was simply doing what he was supposed to do – find the highest and best buyer for the Times. So if that’s the case, why was he fired?