Workers hunkered down in their warrens at the San Diego Union-Tribune reportedly didn’t see much of Austin Beutner, the paper's ex-publisher, whose unceremonious firing this week was accompanied by word that Los Angeles Democratic billionaire Eli Broad had made an offer to buy the struggling news operation and its L.A. sister, the Times.
Now they may be hoping that Beutner’s cost-slashing successor also treads lightly here, though that may be unlikely based on his East Coast history.
Soon after media writer Ken Doctor reported Beutner's ouster on Tuesday, Chicago-based Tribune Publishing announced it was shifting Tim Ryan, publisher of the company’s Baltimore Sun to the West Coast to assume command of its California News Group.
“It is a privilege to lead the iconic Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune,” proclaimed Ryan in a statement issued by the company.
“I am committed to ensuring that these brands continue their legacy of world-class journalism and grow their already-significant voices to drive deeper engagement with consumers and marketers across all platforms.”
But Ryan’s long track record of editorial cutbacks in Baltimore is already raising questions here.
On August 12, the Baltimore Business Journal broke the news of what turned out to be Ryan's last executive action at the Sun, folding the paper’s free weekly, a Gen Y–targeted tabloid called “b.”
"Though b remains a profitable and engaged brand with a loyal following, it has some overlap in audience and advertiser demand with our City Paper and Sun WKND section,” said a note from Ryan.
"Therefore, we have elected to cease publication of b, with its last scheduled publication date on Aug. 27. This change will also allow us to reposition our resources in order to enhance our portfolio. I want to thank everyone who played a role in the success of b."
A spokeswoman for the paper said the shuttering would result in no layoffs, though Ryan's history regarding the City Paper, a Baltimore alternative weekly acquired by the Sun last year, furnished little if any reassurance.
"Eight full-time employees of City Paper’s 25-member staff were laid off last week, including some who had spent nearly 30 years working for the alternative newsweekly," the Business Journal reported in March 2014.
"Which brings us to the second big question: whether City Paper’s edgy editorial content would change following the Sun's acquisition. The deal hasn’t closed yet — it’s expected to wrap up in mid-March — and already the paper is seeing some censorship."
According to the report, "The paper pulled a harsh Feb. 4 review of the recent Jason Aldean concert at the Baltimore Arena following pressure from two advertisers, Baltimore Arena and LiveNationDC."
In a bit of gallows humor, City Paper ran a February 26, 2014, cover resembling the Sun’s front page, with the daily's motto, "Light for All," replaced with "Jobs for some," alluding to the alternative's draconian staff cuts.
As it turned out, earlier this year City Paper was allowed to break the story of another round of departures of Sun staffers.
"Columnist Susan Reimer and feature writer Julie Scharper are taking voluntary buyouts from The Sun, and more journalists from the Baltimore daily may soon be joining them," revealed a June 18 blog item.
The post quoted a June memo by Newspaper Guild representative Alison Knezevich to Sun staffers, saying, "You have probably heard the news about layoffs at the Chicago Tribune, where 24 people were laid off yesterday, including 10 in the newsroom."
The note continued, "The Guild has not been given notice of any layoffs here at the Sun. However, in light of declining ad revenues across Tribune Publishing, the company told us today they may consider some buyouts for people who want to leave."
Reimer emailed City Paper confirming her buyout, and adding, "It is absolutely the truth that I would like to spend more time with family! I am indebted to The Sun for what I consider to have been a rich and rewarding career."
If similar cuts are in the cards for the Union-Tribune under Ryan, departing employees won't have the newspaper union here to help obtain their buyouts, thanks to a controversial figure in local media.
In June 1998, Union-Tribune workers voted to decertify the Newspaper Guild, which then represented about 800 of the paper's employees.
Leading the anti-union drive for then-publisher Helen Copley was U-T editor Karin Winner, who took charge of distributing enticements including free admission tickets to the U-T’s corporate box at Padres games, where free food and booze were reportedly served to wavering workers.
Winner, who left the paper as editor when it was taken over by Beverly Hills–based Platinum Equity, is cofounder and chair of Inewsource, the nonprofit online news operation affiliated with San Diego State University, which recently won the latest round in a court duel over the group's connections to the tax-backed institution.
Meanwhile, layoffs at the Los Angeles Times under Ryan’s rule are said to be rapidly approaching.
"Times staffers are bracing for a prolonged round of layoffs and buyouts that are likely to target at least 50 positions, sources with knowledge of the situation said," according to Politico, which adds that ex-Obama White House aide Johanna Maska, brought in as a marketing vice president by ousted publisher Beutner, has already hit the bricks.
The Politico blog item carried word from unnamed sources that Beutner was fired because he was suspected of trying to engineer a buyout of the Times and U-T by billionaire Democrat Eli Broad, long a political power player in both cities.