With lots of fanfare, The Los Angeles Times is relaunching the California section with an increased emphasis on local and statewide news with “in-depth coverage of key government institutions.”  This would include the City of Los Angeles, the County, the Los Angeles Unified School District, Sacramento, and other governmental institutions such as the City’s three proprietary departments, Water and Power, the Port of Los Angeles, and LAX.

There certainly is no lack of material.

Our City is essentially broke.  We are burdened with over $30 billion of debt, unfunded pension liabilities, and deferred maintenance on our streets, sidewalks, and the rest of our failing infrastructure.  The City is also projecting a budget deficit of $165 million and $425 million over the next three years and has no clue how it intends to finance its share of the revitalization of the Los Angeles River, its ambitious Sustainability Initiative, or Great Streets, the strategic plan for the Department of Transportation.  

The County is also fertile ground.  It has unfunded pension liabilities north of $50 billion and its jails will be subject to federal consent decree.  And if Sheila Kuehl is elected to replace the fiscally prudent Zev Yaroslavsky, the County’s already tight budget will be under immense pressure as the leadership of the County’s unions will demand increased salaries and pension benefits as payback for their millions of campaign contributions.

The State claims it has a balanced budget.  Baloney!  Just look at its neglected parks that comprise over 1.6 million acres and a third of our coast line, its monstrous pension liabilities totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, and its failing roads that demand billions in maintenance and repair.

There are also the ongoing shenanigans involving our Department of Water and Power, whether it is the doubling of our rates over the next ten to fifteen years, the attempt to saddle the Ratepayers with overpriced water from the One Water 2040 LA plan, or Tom LaBonge’s less than transparent attempt to enter into a $1 a year lease for DWP’s valuable property in the Lake Hollywood area.

To “sharpen and deepen its coverage – with exclusive enterprise reporting, watchdog journalism, vital data, and distinctive local reporting from across the state” – will require additional resources, including increasing the size of the 500 person news room (“the largest west of the Hudson”) or reassigning existing reporters to new beats.

But The Los Angeles Times may not have the necessary flexibility to achieve its ambitious goals as its parent company, Tribune Publishing, has a heavy debt load (almost $400 million including pension liabilities) at the same time that its major daily newspapers (LA, Chicago, Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando, and South Florida) are experiencing declining readership, revenues, and profits as print dollars are being replaced by digital dimes.

The Times is also burdened by the Tribune Publishing’s Chicago bureaucracy which, among other things, has developed a web site that is slow, hard to navigate, difficult to search, light on new content, and populated with too many pop up ads.

This is the maze that Austin Beutner, the fourteenth Publisher of The Times, will have to navigate.

As a former investment banker, Beutner is familiar with corporations, their management, and finances.

He is also well acquainted with the City of Los Angeles and its citizens.

As the General Manager of our Department of Water and Power, he did an excellent job of trimming back an overly ambitious capital expenditure program that would have burdened Ratepayers with billions of additional debt.  He also delegated authority to the operating management, unlike the micromanagers on the City Council.  And most importantly, he convinced Mayor Villaraigosa to hire Ron Nichols, a proven industry executive, as General Manager rather than appoint an inexperienced political crony.

Beutner was also the co-chair of the LA 2020 Commission, whose first well written and concise report, A Time for Truth, outlined the many issues facing the City, while its second report, A Time for Action, had a number of specific recommendations.

Unfortunately, Herb Wesson and the City Council have failed to even consider the major recommendations, including the formation of an “Office of Transparency and Accountability” to oversee the City’s dismal finances and the establishment of a “Commission on Retirement Security” to make recommendations on how to achieve “equilibrium” on retirement costs by 2020.

But now that Beutner is the Publisher of the paper of record for the City and the County as well as the largest paper in the State of California, he has the opportunity to shine the light on our political establishment and the games they play with our hard earned money.  The Times also has the opportunity to not only recommend and/or endorse needed reforms, but the ability to follow up by calling out the City Council, the Board of Supervisors, the Board of Education, the Governor, and the Legislature.

Austin Beutner, unleash those newsroom watchdogs.

Cross-posted at City Watch LA.