When hotelier and U-T San Diego owner Doug Manchester bought the North County Times last week for $11.95 million, he consolidated control over both of San Diego’s major daily newspapers. With the purchase, the man who calls himself Papa Doug became the county’s most powerful media figure.
Here are four key takeaways I’ve tried to drive home when I’ve made radio and TV appearances talking about the North County Times purchase and what readers should expect.
1. Manchester spent roughly $122 million for two newspapers, he can do what he wants with them. Buy a newspaper, and you can print all the front-page editorials you want. You can support and criticize whatever candidates and initiatives you like.
But cutting loose comes with risk. Just because you can doesn’t mean your community will like it. San Diego County has a nearly equal number of Democrats and Republicans. An editorial page that caters to an extreme of just one party is going to disenfranchise a whole bunch of people.
The U-T under Manchester and CEO John Lynch has become more strident and doctrinaire, a tack its editor, Jeff Light, tried to steer the paper away from a few years ago.
Light’s push toward inclusiveness in the paper’s opinion page came while its then-owner, a private equity firm called Platinum Equity, was working to rehabilitate the U-T, to make it stop hemorrhaging subscribers and become profitable again.
Manchester has pushed in the opposite direction from Light’s approach, infusing the U-T with a brash conservativeness that’s clearly driving some readers away. Listen to the phone calls from listeners during my appearance on KPBS Friday. (In short: They weren’t happy.) What’s not clear is whether just a vocal few are canceling their subscriptions or indicate a larger trend.
Manchester and Lynch say subscriptions — some are being offered for 5 cents for a year — have increased. We’ll know whether that’s true later this fall when the U-T’s circulation figures are released for the six-month period ending in September.
2. Readers should be aware of Manchester and Lynch’s interests and how they might color the North County Times’ coverage. They like sports and the military. Regulations not so much. They like businesses. They dislike Chargers stadium opponents.
In a meeting last week with Times staff, Manchester told the newsroom he would be hands off. But he also said he expected reporters to write positive stories. Manchester told reporters to be particularly positive when writing about business owners “who are employing lots of people or risking their capital,” according to an account in the Times.
As I explained on KPBS: “He says on the one hand that … he wants the news reporters to write whatever they want. … But he adds, I do want you to write things that are positive. And so which is it? Sometimes the truth is not positive.”
What form might that expectation take? The U-T has featured people with ties to Manchester in front-page news stories. And Manchester has said he wants the paper to be a cheerleader for the military, local sports teams and area businesses.
But the U-T under Manchester has also gone on the attack, using both its news and opinion pages to lambaste the Unified Port of San Diego, which opposed a major U-T waterfront stadium and arena proposal.
At the U-T, Manchester and Lynch have blurred the line between shaping the newspaper’s editorial page and its news content. Lynch told me last year he wanted the sports page to call out opponents of a new Chargers stadium as “obstructionists.” A sports columnist who’d questioned Lynch and the need for a new stadium was later let go.
3. Whatever happens to the North County Times’ brand, the paper’s readers will get a product that is more partisan, petulant and provocative than what they receive today. I’ve repeated that line over and over. Changes at the Times won’t be subtle. The U-T has been renamed and rebranded, launched a TV station and put up an online pay wall. Those changes happened quickly. The Times deal closes in October.
4. We can say goodbye to the Times as an important second newspaper voice in the county. The U-T and North County Times tussled over the same turf, but they weren’t as competitive as newspapers in cities that have (or had) two big metro dailies. Here, the U-T was the impersonal metro paper trying to connect with 3 million people. The Times was the community paper with a story about your kid’s football team in it.
Still, having a second large newspaper in San Diego has by default meant more competition — a good thing for the region. It’s meant more reporters trying to right wrongs or simply tell the community what’s happening around it.
Now that voice is being consolidated under Manchester’s control. As I noted on NBC, that’s a political boost for Manchester — even in a post-print age where newspapers face a staggering decline in ad revenues.
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Observers across the country have been watching to see whether ideologues like Manchester are solely interested in newspapers because they’ve become an affordable megaphone they can use for personal political gain.
In San Diego County, that experiment just started in a second Petri dish: The 75,000-circulation daily serving the North County.
If you want to learn more about Manchester and who he is, be sure to read our in-depth profile of him. And watch our San Diego Explained segment, produced in partnership with NBC 7 San Diego.
View more videos at: http://nbcsandiego.com.
Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.325.0529.
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