Austin Beutner, who rode into San Diego this May as top gun of the newly rechristened Union-Tribune, has been fired by Tribune Publishing, the Chicago news chain for which Beutner simultaneously served as chief of the Los Angeles Times.
In the murky soup of what remains of the American newspaper business, the Beutner saga may only serve to reinforce the notion that big political money is talking, with unsavory implications for San Diego's future.
The story, as first reported by media writer Ken Doctor, involves the putative purchase from Tribune of the Times and San Diego U-T by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, who has long played big-money political roles in both cities.
As subsequently reported by the Times, "Within the past few weeks, Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad approached Tribune with an offer to purchase the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune and operate the two papers as a separate company. The proposal was rejected."
Noted the paper's story, "Beutner had engineered Tribune’s purchase of the San Diego paper in May, part of a strategy to consolidate Southern California newspapers under common ownership as a way to reduce production and distribution costs and generate revenue for digital initiatives. The two papers comprised the newly formed California News Group under Beutner."
According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, also owned by Tribune Publishing, revenue troubles, accompanied by Beutner’s politically based staffing, preceded his ouster.
"A number of Beutner's high-profile hires didn't sit well with Tribune Publishing, especially those with political undertones," the story says.
"Last November, Internet strategist Nicco Mele, who helped move political campaigning into the digital era, was named deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Johanna Maska, who served in various roles with the Obama administration, was named vice president of marketing and communications at the Los Angeles Times in April."
Beutner himself, who once ran for mayor of L.A., is a veteran of the Clinton administration, and he has been a major donor to state and national Democratic causes.
San Diego U-T’s money-making woes also played a role in Beutner's departure, the paper says.
"Advertising revenue continues to fall for the Chicago-based newspaper company, which is seeking to bolster operations through acquisitions, cost-cutting and an aggressive digital transformation. The San Diego acquisition was driven by Tribune Publishing, but sources said leadership was not satisfied with Beutner's execution on that strategy."
But it is Beutner's continued ties to Los Angeles billionaire Broad and his reported offer to buy the U-T that may have the biggest implications for San Diego and its survival as anything more than a suburban outpost of the sprawling megalopolis to the north.
As reported here last week, the investment company of Broad business associate and fellow L.A. billionaire Bruce Karsh owns the biggest stake in Tribune. Both have been backers of Hillary Clinton's presidential hopes.
U-T editorial coverage of Clinton shifted abruptly when Tribune took over the paper from Republican kingpin Douglas Manchester, though the paper took pains to communicate to its readers that Beutner did not unduly covet the U-T’s opinion page.
Broad has also been closely associated with former San Diego Unified School District superintendent Alan Bersin, currently a member of the Obama administration, to whose causes the billionaire has provided major financial support.
One of Broad's longtime associates in those ventures has been Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, another Clinton backer who has often sought to influence the city's media and politicos.
A backer of the charter-school movement, Broad has also contributed with other moneyed San Diegans, including La Jollan Buzz Woolley, chairman of the Voice of San Diego news and opinion website here, in support of so-called education reform issues.
Word of Broad's recent U-T takeover attempt from troubled Tribune Publishing may only forebode another attempt in the near future, as the newspaper's fortunes tumble further, some inside observers note.
The Baltimore Sun’s Tim Ryan has been announced as Beutner’s replacement in Los Angeles and San Diego.