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Roundtable: Publisher’s Firing, Press Freedom Suit, El Niño, Drought

Photo caption: Austin Beutner speaks during an interview with KPBS, May 2015.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Austin Beutner speaks during an interview with KPBS, May 2015.

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So long, Austin Beutner

Well, that was fast.

Austin Beutner, the man who organized the purchase of the San Diego Union-Tribune from Doug Manchester, was fired this week by Chicago-based Tribune Publishing.

The sudden move seems to have taken him by surprise, as he noted in a Facebook post, and stunned the newsrooms of the Union-Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

Beutner, a former investment banker and publisher of the Los Angeles Times since August 2014, became publisher of the San Diego paper with the completion of its sale in May 2015.

He launched multiple initiatives to try to stem the loss of ad revenue, which apparently did not show immediate and spectacular results; moved the Union-Tribune’s print operation to L.A.; made some hires regarded with suspicion by his corporate bosses; and was possibly talking to L.A. gazillionaire Eli Broad about a purchase of both papers.

Most of these moves did not sit well with the Tribune Corporation. Beutner was replaced this week by Timothy Ryan, publisher and CEO of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, another Tribune holding, since 2007.

There are hints that we may not have seen the last of him — or Eli Broad — in the Southern California media world.

SLAPP suit slapped down

A SLAPP lawsuit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) filed by San Diegans for Open Government, against KPBS news partner inewsource has been thrown out of court.

The suit challenged lease agreements between inewsource and the San Diego State University Research Foundation as a conflict of interest.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon granted inewsource’s motion to dismiss the suit because it was meant to silence reporting critical of Cory Briggs, the high-profile attorney whose legal work on behalf of San Diegans for Open Government has been the subject of a months-long investigation by inewsource. The judge said the lease agreements were “inextricably related to news gathering and dissemination, which is clearly protected activity.”

San Diegans for Open Government has said it will appeal.

El Niño, drought and climate change

As most every Californian knows by now, there is a strong El Niño bubbling up in the Pacific along the equator.

Avoiding absolutes, forecasters say the odds increasingly favor a wet winter for at least the southern half of the state.

Warmer El Niño waters add energy and moisture to the atmosphere and can help alter the storm track over North America and much of the globe. The El Niño building now has the potential to be bigger than two previous giant El Niño episodes in the 1980s and '90s, which caused severe coastal erosion, inland flooding and big agricultural losses. Damage in California for those events was more than $1 billion.

On the other hand, we remain in the midst of a severe drought. The massive, raging wildfires, scarcity of water for people and agriculture, the mammoth die-off of trees up and down California are all ugly signs of a prolonged dry period.

To possibly no one's surprise, a new report says that this scary state of affairs can be partly blamed on climate change caused by humans. Greenhouse gasses have deepened the four-year drought by up to 20 percent; absent global warming, the drought would be that much less severe.

Because of recent monsoon rains, San Diego water supplies are at 99 percent of normal, with much of it stored in the recently expanded San Vicente Reservoir. The San Diego County Water Authority is frustrated because it can’t use the water, though, due to state-mandated conservation targets which will last at least until 2016.

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