What the Latest Turmoil at the San Diego Union-Tribune Means

Media UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

What the Latest Turmoil at the San Diego Union-Tribune Means

The departure of the paper’s top executive just four months into his tenure shows decisions about the Union-Tribune’s future are being made far, far away.

When Doug Manchester owned the San Diego Union-Tribune, the lifelong San Diegan attempted to reshape the region in his image. Think a new Chargers stadium on the waterfront and front-page editorials for his preferred mayoral candidate.

His sale to the Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in May brought all that to an end. The change meant that like them or not, the big decisions about the paper’s approach and fate would be made by people outside San Diego.

This new reality was driven home Tuesday, when Tribune fired Austin Beutner, publisher of both the Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. According to various news reports, the Chicago folks didn’t like how Beutner was trying to turn the Times into a civic force and potentially set up his own political career in the process. In Beutner’s place, the company is appointing Timothy E. Ryan, publisher of the Baltimore Sun.

Chicago. Los Angeles. Baltimore. These are the cities where decisions are being made about the future of San Diego’s newspaper – with the role of people here marginal at best. Indeed, in Beutner’s goodbye letter posted on Facebook, he opines a lot on the L.A. Times, but only mentions the Union-Tribune in passing.

In Beutner’s brief time in charge, the paper has already made systemic changes. It laid off almost 200 people – almost 30 percent of its staff – mainly by consolidating print and delivery operations in L.A. It changed its name from U-T San Diego back to the Union-Tribune. It unveiled a morning news roundup called Essential California that has racked up 10,000 subscribers.

Ryan, the new publisher, faces the same pressures Beutner did. Manchester retained the U-T’s Mission Valley property when he sold the paper, and the company has to decide what to do with its employees when its lease expires in May.

And there are more existential threats. Here’s how Scott Lewis described them when Tribune bought the U-T:

With internet advertising, newspapers are competing with Facebook and Google and thousands of other upstart apps, all of whom say they can create a better experience, target populations better and deliver more direct value for advertisers.

Thus, as it stands, newspapers are marching toward a cliff — that spot where print revenue sinks so low the operation is not viable but the bridge to the digital future is not yet complete.

With Beutner out, it’s now Ryan’s job to figure out how to build that bridge.

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