Can L.A. billionaire’s cash halt U-T layoffs?

Broad foundation funding emerges as source of influence in Los Angeles Times intrigue

Eli Broad
  • Eli Broad

Crain's Chicago Business is reporting that "hundreds" of employees of Chicago-based Tribune Publishing, proprietor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, could be departing at year’s end as a result of accepting the troubled company's buyout offer.

"At the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the company's seven other smaller newspapers, a large percentage of editors, reporters, press operators and support staff have raised their hands to take the offer," says Crain’s.

"The number of employees who have volunteered to leave comes to at least 100, perhaps at Chicago Tribune alone, and likely several hundred across the company, based on interviews with current and former employees."

The deadline for applying for the buyout was October 23, with a final tally of company quitters expected by November 12, the account says. Most departures are expected to happen by Thanksgiving.

Irwin Jacobs

Irwin Jacobs

To some, including backers of billionaire Eli Broad's attempt to buy the L.A. Times and the U-T, Tribune Publishing's buyouts and related deck-chair shuffling is yet another reason to turn Tribune’s entire California operation over to Broad and his talked-of partners, including fellow Democratic billionaire Irwin Jacobs of La Jolla.

A huge injection of cash from the deep-pocketed pair would bolster local journalism, the theory goes, and halt the layoffs eroding both papers.

On the other hand, critics remain concerned that Broad's motive in taking over the newspapers has more to do with his and Jacobs's keen interest in charter schools and other highly charged political issues than improving journalism.

Austin Beutner

Austin Beutner

from LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce YouTube video

The latest controversy involving Broad and the Times came to light October 29 in the Washington Post, which reported that the wealthy Angeleno’s nonprofit Broad Foundation is funding an education reporting initiative started by Austin Beutner, the paper's ex-publisher who was fired in September after a failed Broad buyout effort.

“Our goal is to provide an ongoing, wide-ranging report card on K-12 education in Los Angeles, California and the nation,” Beutner announced in an August 18 statement run by the Times.

“With an expanded team of reporters, we will take a fresh approach to our news and analysis starting with today’s stories about the unique challenges facing LA [Unified School District] and the last year-round school in Los Angeles,” Beutner said.

"The project, called 'Education Matters,' would be funded by a series of charitable organizations," noted the Post.

"Except the newspaper left out a key detail: Some of the foundations funding 'Education Matters' are among the most prominent advocates of public-education reform in Los Angeles," including Broad’s.

The opinionated L.A. billionaire’s role as a financial backer of the Times reporting was defended by S. Mitra Kalita, managing editor for editorial strategy, who told the Post, "There is no editorial control or say that the funders have on our newsroom."

Alan Bersin

Alan Bersin

As previously reported here, Broad’s foundation was tied to an intense volley of campaign hit pieces and TV spots run during a November 2000 San Diego school-board race, at the time seen as key to the future of then-school superintendent Alan Bersin, a self-styled reformer and Broad political favorite.

Jacobs, a major funder of San Diego State University’s KPBS public broadcasting outlets, also provided major cash for the effort.

The prospects for a Broad takeover have fueled questions here about the clouded ownership of the U-T, which has come at a key time in the history of the San Diego Chargers. By a timely coincidence, the team is seeking to move north to Los Angeles, with its far larger media market, including the Times.

Kevin Faulconer

Kevin Faulconer

Stan Kroenke

Stan Kroenke

The few editorials the San Diego paper has run on the team's putative exodus have treaded lightly. The U-T’s most recent missive — 302 words appearing on September 24 — suggested San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer "make a concession to Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos and tell him that the city will, after all, consider locating a new stadium downtown rather than in Mission Valley. This could also be considered calling the Chargers’ bluff."

Facing a similarly threatened departure of its team, the newspaper in St. Louis has taken a tougher tack.

Headlined, "Time for stadium boosters to turn over their cards,” the Post-Dispatch’s 1000-word-plus editorial of October 9 explicitly called out the NFL and Rams owner Stan Kroenke for bad behavior, saying, "Mr. Kroenke's money is a sure thing. Relative to his $6.3 billion, the St. Louis plan is still squishy, but the league can use whatever excuse it wants if he decides to snatch (another) team from a city and fans who have been badly used."

Noting that league rules say owners can't operate franchises in other sports, the paper notes, "Mr. Kroenke has been doing that ever since 2010, when he became the Rams’ sole owner, adding them to a portfolio that already included professional hockey and basketball teams in Denver. He also owns an English Premier League soccer team, but he got a pass on that."

Adds the editorial, "This week the NFL gave him a pass on Denver, too, approving his plan to transfer ownership to his wife, Ann Walton Kroenke, a Columbia, Mo., Walmart heir. She’s worth $4.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine, and he’s worth $6.3 billion, but apparently they keep separate checking accounts. This is bogus, except the NFL — which makes its own rules — says it’s not."

The piece continued, "Already the league commissioned a market analysis that knocked St. Louis for its slow growth (like Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Green Bay are booming)."

Regarding the St. Louis drive to build a new stadium with public money, the paper opines, "This has been an exercise in 'we know best' top-down governance. Ordinances have been trampled. The Legislature has been bypassed. That has been convenient, but it’s crunch time now, and it’s time to see the term sheets."

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Time to get ready for yet another attack on public education. Kind of makes me wonder if all the corporations that have staked out claims for the educational dollar had an influence when Sweetwater's troubles were at their worst. Is it too wild to think that maybe we couldn't get traction because some people wanted public school systems to circle the drain, so that the leavings would be easier to scoop up?

Hang on, people, this could be another wild ride. Time to pay attention!

If anyone is looking forward to another ownership change of the U-T, be careful of what you wish for. (You might get it.) The slant the paper has had could and likely would be replaced by a Dem agenda, spiced with pet projects. You might be surprised to see the clout those billionaires can muster when they have some agenda to push.

For anyone who had paid any attention, you know that I am very skeptical of charter schools. Too many have failed to deliver what they promised. And many have an agenda that they don't publicize. Once established, most get no oversight from the school districts that charter them, despite the legal mandate for ongoing attention. It all adds up to charter schools having no real accountability, and nobody watching them.

As far as Broad wanting to serve journalism, be very afraid. If/when he takes control, there will be even less real news reported, and the journalists will be replaced by editorial writers pushing his pet projects.

Desperate times. I'd rather see the LA Times and SD Union-Tribune in the hands of aging localish Democratic billionaires on power trips than being bled to death by accountants and shareholders in Chicago. That's where we're heading.

Meanwhile, has anyone other than Readerwriter Matt Potter ever linked Irwin Jacobs and Eli Broad in the same sentence when speculating about a So Cal buyout of Tribune Company's once-prime properties? Just asking, but I don't think so. Maybe Potter will be prophetic.

Anyway, all the opposition to Broad is coming from the teachers union that has branded him the enemy for his devotion to taking public money and making charter schools. I'm not crazy about that aspect of the idea myself, but the track record of public education in Los Angeles and San Diego does not inspire admiration or confidence. Neither the newspapers nor the schools could be in more peril than at present, so I'm praying for a change.

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