STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When billionaires think of something really nice to buy themselves, they sometimes turn their eyes toward a newspaper. Wealthy owners have bought The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and the Minneapolis Star Tribune in recent years. And now one of the country's biggest dailys, the LA Times, might join that list because Eli Broad wants to buy the paper from Tribune Publishing. From member station KPCC, Ben Bergman reports.
BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: Only about 1 in 14 LA households still get the Times delivered to their doorstep. Fewer people pick it up at newsstands. But for Peter Leda, old habits die hard. On a recent afternoon, he scooped up a copy of the Times at one of the city's few remaining newsstands.
PETER LEDA: Whenever a paper is locally owned, you think that it would be more concerned with the city.
BERGMAN: Another newsstand costumer, Doug Phelps, says he hopes the Times is bought by Eli Broad.
DOUG PHELPS: He's a fighter for our city, and I would like to think that his perspective would show that.
BERGMAN: For more than a century, the Times was owned by prominent LA family, the Chandlers. Since it was bought by Tribune in 2000, the paper's daily circulation has fallen by nearly half. So has the size of the newsroom. There used to be 22 foreign bureaus; now there are seven. Coverage of the city and county shrank so much, the paper didn't even have a separate local section.
AUSTIN BEUTNER: When I got to the Los Angeles Times, I think it had lost touch with it's roots.
BERGMAN: That Austin Beutner, who was hired as the Times publisher in 2014. As one of his first moves, Beutner re-launched the California section, which Tribune had eliminated.
BEUTNER: So we reestablished that as the California section and said, we're going to work harder to be all things California to our audience.
BERGMAN: It was a locally focused strategy Beutner's bosses in Chicago disagreed with. In September, he was fired after only a year on the job without so much as a phone call.
BEUTNER: I heard about it on the radio on the way into work.
BERGMAN: Beutner's sudden dismissal struck a chord with civic leaders. Fifty of them, including Eli Broad, signed a letter protesting the firing. Broad has already tried to buy the Times at least twice, only to be rebuffed by Tribune. Both Broad and Tribune declined to speak for this story, but speaking on Tavis Smiley's PBS show, Broad sounded very much like someone wanting to own the Times.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TAVIS SMILEY SHOW")
ELI BROAD: I believe local ownership would be a great thing for the people of Los Angeles and Southern California because we would want to invest in the future of the paper and not just keep cutting the newsroom staff.
BERGMAN: Some 80 Times journalists recently took buyouts. Sixteen percent of the newsroom went out the door, everyone from the chief copy editor to the wine critic to the main editors for city and state politics. But as much as the staff dislikes Tribune, there's apprehension about Broad. He has a my-way-or-the-highway reputation and strong views on issues the Times covers, like charter schools. Kevin Roderick is a former Times reporter who now blogs about LA media.
KEVIN RODERICK: What he is is a walking conflict of interest. He'd be a rich guy in Los Angeles who has his hands in lots of things.
BERGMAN: Fears about conflicts of interest have usually turned out to be overblown according to media analyst Ken Doctor. When he looks at papers bought by billionaires, it's usually been good news.
KEN DOCTOR: I can see why Eli Broad would be seen as a white knight.
BERGMAN: Doctor says rich owners have brought the patience public companies don't have.
DOCTOR: What is characteristic of all of them is they have steadied the paper and have steadied the enterprise as that paper moves digital.
BERGMAN: What none of the owners have figured out is a long-term business strategy for local news coverage. To University of Southern California journalism Professor Marc Cooper, it feels like the campaign for local control of the Times is driven by nostalgia for a bygone era.
MARC COOPER: You have a older group of civic leaders who, probably with noble intentions, would like to save the newspaper they grew up with.
BERGMAN: Though, according to the Pew Research Center as much as print ad revenue has declined, it still brings in five times more money than digital. And believe it or not, most newspaper readers still read the print paper. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.