Joe Mathews: Plug pulled early on bold L.A. Times campaign

Los Angeles Times Publisher Austin Beutner was replaced in September by executives of parent company Tribune Publishing Co.
Los Angeles Times Publisher Austin Beutner was replaced in September by executives of parent company Tribune Publishing Co. Los Angeles Times

The most important political campaign in California has died prematurely, and without a proper obituary. It wasn’t for a candidate or measure, but for the Los Angeles Times.

In September, Tribune Publishing, the Chicago media company that owns the Times, fired publisher Austin Beutner after a year on the job. The dismissal of Beutner – a former investment banker and deputy mayor with no previous experience in media – may have been predictable.

But his firing touched off controversy. Beutner’s supporters portrayed Tribune executives as distant meddlers who were afraid that Beutner was steering the paper to a local owner (billionaire Eli Broad). Tribune countered that Beutner couldn’t meet companywide financial targets.

Lost in this L.A. vs. Chicago controversy was the question that should matter to Californians: Where was the Times headed?

It’s too bad we never got more of an answer, because the evidence suggests Beutner’s team was trying to transform the Times into a larger statewide civic entity that combined elements of politics and media.

Beutner’s effort was so ambitious – he created the California News Group, which included the Tribune-acquired San Diego Union-Tribune, and might have added other outlets – it was likely to fail. But the effort might have led to a different media future.

California’s newspapers need to become more activist civic organizations – both to better serve disengaged communities and to ensure the papers’ relevance and survival.

To that end, Beutner hired people who had little experience in newspapers, but would have fit any political campaign: a former top adviser to Howard Dean, multiple Obama aides, experienced City Hall staffers. This new Times put on more public events, raised money from foundations to support news coverage, started 20 new products catering to different constituencies and published its own ratings of local politicians.

This political turn raised eyebrows, but it wasn’t new. When American newspapers were at their most influential in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were subsidized by political parties and weren’t shy about leveraging political influence. Those papers were also livelier and far better at getting people to participate in civic life than today’s papers.

But in the middle of the 20th century, the country grew bigger and less partisan, and risk-averse corporations owned the media. Newspapers were staffed by professional, educated journalists who prized independence. (A former Times reporter, I was one of them).

But in recent decades, the country, California especially, has become more polarized. While some media outlets followed the audience down this politicized path, the major newspapers mostly stuck with objectivity.

It’s past time for that to change. The Times was moving this way, but political problems, ironically, proved its undoing. Beutner couldn’t successfully manage his relationship with Tribune executives. They were reportedly suspicious that his high profile – he had a book club for readers, wrote short columns and led a big public event with Gov. Jerry Brown – was a prelude to a run for office. (His supporters deny this).

No matter who is in charge, the Times must be more than a news gatherer; it must be an institution that offers ideas and politics that engage the city. And that requires understanding this paradox: Engaging Californians requires dividing us in ways that create debate and draw people in.

Creating division is difficult today because big majorities of residents in each region pretty much agree on big issues. Since we have sorted ourselves into communities of the like-minded, we need newspapers and politicians to identify dividing lines and get us arguing and thinking anew.

The Times’ aborted campaign felt like a small step in this direction. Here’s hoping that other California newspapers will pursue a similar path and, as the best campaigns do, stir us to action.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.