The U-T's Trials and Travails: Reader's Guide
Controversy magnet Doug Manchester’s purchase of the newspaper
is the latest hairpin turn in the newspaper’s roller coaster
The 20th anniversary of the merger of The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune is approaching in about three months, but the Union-Tribune’s staff may be too distracted to notice.
After all, they’ve been dealing with a much bigger transition — an ongoing bout of whiplash that’s lasted since the boom-to-bust year of 2006. And now the U-T roller coaster has taken another hairpin turn.
Local hotel owner and controversy magnet Doug Manchester is buying the newspaper from Platinum Equity, the firm that snapped it up from the storied Copley family in 2009.
Here’s a look at the saga of San Diego’s metropolitan daily newspaper over the last five years.
The Year It All Changed
As 2006 rolled in, it looked like another bang-up year for the U-T.
The local housing industry was rocking, boosted by ga-ga media coverage. The paper landed on doorsteps with a healthy thunk thanks to a bounty of real-estate ads: the final Sunday paper in January boasted an impressive 288 pages, and readers could expect to peruse some 20 locally written bylined stories each day.
There were plenty of other features too: a stand-alone book section, multiple pages of stock listings, a weekly technology section and a weekly Mini Page for children that had been a staple for decades.
Three years later, all those features were gone, along with about half of the pages in the paper and dozens of employees. The final Sunday paper in January 2009 had just 118 pages, a far cry from 288. Eventually, its staff size would be cut in half.
The problem was simple: advertisers didn’t buy as many ads as the local economy went south, a problem that struck newspapers across the country. By September 2006, a local economic index had dipped for six months in a row, as fewer developers built and unemployment crept up.
Something had to give at the paper that had been owned by three generations of the Copley family. And it did.
The Cuts Keep Coming
Layoffs and employee buyouts came in September (at the U-T’s Today’s Local News spinoff in North County) and in December 2006, along with details about how the owner of the U-T — the Copley Press — announced plans to sell all its seven newspapers in the Midwest.
“The flagship remains San Diego and the moves we are announcing secure our ability to keep The San Diego Union-Tribune as an independent, locally owned newspaper for many years into the future,” publisher David Copley announced in a statement.
In fact, the paper would only survive as a locally owned institution for fewer than three years.
• The departed also included familiar names such as editorial page editor Bob Kittle, TV and art critics, the readers representative, the family editor, columnists, the society writer and a long list of reporters, photographers and others, including most of those responsible for the paper’s best journalism, like the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning takedown of Congressman Duke Cunningham.
Top editors left the paper, as did the editor herself, Karin Winner, and chief executive officer Gene Bell.
Even the newspaper’s storied Washington D.C. bureau was shuttered.
The employees who managed to keep their jobs suffered cuts to pay and benefits.
A thinner paper with fewer ads and fewer readers, of course, also has less need for many other kinds of jobs. The hundreds of other layoffs included workers in every department of the newspaper, including those who sold ads and those who printed and delivered the paper.
To observers and some employees, the paper seemed to be listless and leaderless, beset by internal power struggles and rock-bottom morale.
At Last a Sale
David Copley, the U-T’s publisher, finally gave up in the summer of 2008 and put the U-T (and the tiny Borrego Sun) up for sale. But for a long time, no one was buying as the national economy tanked.
In March 2009, however, Platinum Equity, a Beverly Hills-based private equity firm, bought the paper. The firm got more than just a newspaper: it also got 13 acres in Mission Valley where the newspaper’s headquarters sits.
As a private equity firm, Platinum specializes in buying distressed businesses, restructuring them and then flipping them.
And this business was distressed. It was losing $1 million a month, its current editor later told us.
The new owners arrived on a wave of optimism. They made promises about reform — advertising partnerships, hyperlocal content and shorter stories — and criticized the old leadership.
They cut jobs, more than 300 of them in about three months.
A new publisher, Los Angeles newspaper industry veteran Ed Moss, took over a paper that had lost half its staff in three years. In 2009, he told us about the paper’s circulation (no longer falling), its editorial tilt (no word on whether it would still lean to the right) and the future of offering readers free access to online news (iffy).
The U-T’s new editor, Jeff Light, came to the paper from The Orange County Register. He redesigned the paper, brought in lower-paid and younger journalists, and revamped the paper’s web approach and print layout.
The new owners moved the paper into the black. But they found other problems that “were perhaps more profound than the economic problems,” Light said.
When we looked at how people in the community felt about the newspaper, and we did some research, we didn’t feel like people felt broadly enough a great affinity to the paper, that it shared their views and values, and that it knew it was important to people like them. To me those are important measures of a newspaper that you can’t judge by rating it from afar or winning prizes. You need to understand how it serves the community.
With Kittle’s departure, Light said he also worked to make the paper’s editorial page “less doctrinaire and less strident.”
For now, the U-T’s future is once again unclear. It’s new owner is one of the more controversial and colorful players in town, and we’re now left to see what, if any, impact his outsized personality has on a daily newspaper that’s undergone a radical shift in the last half-decade.