Austin Beutner Enters The Matrix

Austin Beutner at his Dec. 3 appearance before the organization Town Hall-Los Angeles. In the past five years Beutner has been first deputy mayor, run for mayor, been the head of a nonprofit organization that provides glasses to schoolchildren, and served as co-leader of the 2020 Commission. Now, he’s the publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES -When 2010 dawned, almost no one in Los Angeles had heard of Austin Beutner. Five years and five distinct phases later, he’s one of the most powerful and respected people on the civic landscape. To understand his status, consider his Dec. 3 appearance at a Downtown luncheon hosted by the organization Town Hall-Los Angeles: The publisher of the Los Angeles Times sold out the event, filling the room with nearly 200 individuals at $50 a pop and up. These are Taylor Swift prices (albeit for the nosebleed seats), but without the dance numbers and songs about ex-boyfriends.

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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 L.A. Times since Otis Chandler?

This isn’t a slap at ex-publishers, but rather a comment on Beutner, the attention paid to him and the expectations being placed on his shoulders. With the paper having spent the better part of a decade hemorrhaging reporters, and the years of Sam Zell’s ownership and the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy creating a general consensus that the Times’ best days are in the past, some are looking at Beutner like he’s Neo in The Matrix, and is the only hope to save L.A.’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.  

“I made it pretty clear when I joined to people that if we’re going to repeat the same habits, we’re not going to get a different outcome,” Beutner told me after his address. “It’s the old Einstein adage: The definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting a different outcome. Well, we can’t do that. So let’s call a mistake a mistake, or let’s call a practice that once made all the sense in the world, or that we can no longer afford or is no longer valued by our customers or no longer works for us, if we can change it, let’s change it now and move on and do it.”

Striking Quickly

Beutner took the job, he told the Town Hall crowd, after he tried unsuccessfully to buy the paper. He let the owners know he would come on as an active publisher, but not a caretaker.

“I’m only interested if we can make it great again and if we can be that civic conscience,” he remarked.

Beutner struck quickly, and within two months of starting he euthanized the calamity known as the LatExtra section, and while I’m not sure if one technically can euthanize a calamity, I’m sticking with it, because it was true. The section exemplified all that had gone wrong at the paper, with Beutner noting that it worked for the printing press operators but made little sense to readers. 

In killing LatExtra Beutner got the double bonus of reviving the California section, which at last gives the impression that the newspaper might care about local readers. The move has been roundly cheered, and probably gave Beutner eight months of goodwill with the public. Hail Neo!

He said more changes will come, and if successful they’ll resonate with the community and make oodles of money (he didn’t use the word “oodles”). He noted that the paper still has 500 journalists and a $75 million newsroom budget, but the same old won’t suffice.

“We have to find different ways to tell stories and engage the community,” he told the crowd.

“Different” is the operative word. Beutner said that the Times’ analytical web data, prepared by gnomes that live in the Times headquarters’ boiler room (not really), reveals that readers most engage with short stories of 100-200 words, or longer explanatory pieces of 1,000 words or more, and the common 500- to 700-word story falters by comparison. Guess which ones you’ll see less of in the future.

He also said the Times will partner heavily with high schools (the “HS Insider” launched eight days later), and that sports reporters who spend hours with the teams they cover will, in the future, deliver more than just a single story. Other sections will also get a revamp. The key, he said, is for the Times to be agile and nimble. 

“We have to be very different as an organization than we were in print,” he said.

Big Vision

Anyone familiar with Beutner isn’t surprised by the ambitious agenda. After all, he made partner at the cutthroat New York financial firm Blackstone at 29, and later went to Russia at the behest of President Bill Clinton to help install a market economy. He would go on to co-found the venture capital firm Evercore. He has more money than most rappers.

Things changed in 2007 when he broke his neck in a mountain biking accident. He spent a year recuperating and reassessing his life, and opted to go civic. On Jan. 12, 2010, he joined Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office as First Deputy Mayor. It was a never-before-given title, made just for Beutner. He took a salary of $1 a year.

This led to something shocking: a successful year for the formerly wandering, unfocused Villaraigosa administration. Beutner oversaw 13 city departments, including the DWP, and introduced proposals to streamline the development permitting process and erase the business tax for three years for companies that relocate to Los Angeles.

He quit in April 2011, ran for mayor, then dropped out of the race. Still, he remained civically engaged, and partnered with power lawyer Mickey Kantor to helm the 2020 Commission, which this year released two sharply worded reports about the problems facing Los Angeles and how to address them. City Hall responded with the ostrich approach, sticking its collective head in the sand and hoping the reports would go away.

Beutner’s is an interesting and unique resume. He is preternaturally smart, but isn’t a system disruptor à la Facebook or Twitter. Rather, he’s a re-envisioner who grasps the core of a problem and reshapes it, and who doesn’t hesitate to jettison outdated practices that have become comfortable. The piece of his past that might best indicate his future at the Times comes not from his time in the mayor’s office or the 2020 Commission, but rather at his nonprofit, Vision to Learn.

In 2012 Beutner learned that thousands of local children were suffering from poor vision that impacted their schoolwork, but whether because of poverty or something else, they never received glasses. So, Beutner found some money, bought a bus, hired eye doctors and support staff and had them travel to schools. Kids would climb aboard, take eye tests and those who needed glasses would pick out frames. A couple weeks later the glasses would be delivered, free of charge.

It was the type of problem that could be analyzed to death, one that in government would spark reams of reports and rounds of bidding before any action. Instead, Beutner glimpsed the problem and acted.

Killing LatExtra was a similar move. A more significant shift may come via Nicco Mele, who will join the Times next month as deputy publisher. He’ll be the Times’ top Internet strategist, which doesn’t actually mean he’s in charge of finding funny cat videos. Instead, he’ll shape the Times’ business approach on all digital platforms. Beutner hired him, he said, to provide “a fresh set of ideas and a fresh set of thinking.” 

Expect the digital shift to be seismic, though it’s impossible to know if the strategy will work, or if Beutner can ultimately pull a Neo move and beat The Matrix. Still, one thing is for sure: The Times of yesterday will not be the Times of tomorrow. 

regardie@downtownnews.com

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