The Fall Of The San Diego Union-Tribune
How A Major GOP Donor Turned A Respected Paper Into A Corporate Shill
Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP
It's been just about a year since developer and financier Douglas Manchester bought the San Diego Union-Tribune, the largest newspaper in the city. For some staffers and media observers, it's been the worst year in the paper's eight-decade history.
Manchester, a major Republican Party contributor, and U-T CEO John Lynch have overhauled the once-respected daily into what many consider a front for Manchester's "cheerleading" for business interests and right-wing politics.
"People are so embarrassed by the [newspaper] that they are dropping their subscriptions," says Don Bauder, who spent 30 years at the Union-Tribune from 1973 to 2003, which included stints as financial editor and columnist. "Around town it is an embarrassment."
A group headed by Manchester purchased the Union-Tribune in November 2011, just a few years after the paper won two Pulitzer prizes. He took over operations in January 2012 and immediately put his mark on the paper, changing the name to U-T San Diego to promote all of its news outlets beyond print, hiring Lynch, a longtime friend and local radio station owner, as his CEO, and placing a front-page editorial on the print edition that all but vowed to work for big business.
Such changes have come at a cost. David Carr of The New York Times, among the most respected media columnists in the country, wrote in June that the Union-Tribune "often seems like a brochure for [Manchester's] various interests." He added that any pretense of protecting news coverage from the new ownership's editorial views "was obliterated from the start."
The paper's decline has continued apace since Carr published his piece. In the run up to November's elections, the paper took its support for a Republican mayoral candidate to unusual lengths with front page editorials, while also disparaging President Obama via opinion pieces that featured vitriol usually confined to Internet fever swamps.
From its outlandish front page editorializing for a new football stadium and waterfront development (which would indirectly benefit Manchester's bank account) to its top executive's threatening email to a public official, the newspaper is considered by many staff and local media experts to have fallen into an ethical morass.
And that worry has grown worse in the past few months as Manchester bought the North County Times, a smaller daily in nearby Escondido, CA, which was considered a necessary rival to the Union-Tribune.
"The only way the paper will survive is if people trust it to give the news of their community," said Dean Nelson, director of journalism at nearby Point Loma Nazarene University, who also writes for The New York Times and The Boston Globe. "If people get the sense it is just whoring for the leadership's business enterprises, they are done.
"Doug Manchester Doesn't Know Anything About Running A Newspaper"
At 70, Douglas "Papa Doug" Manchester has established himself as a prime developer and businessman in San Diego. A longtime resident of the area, Manchester got his start selling insurance before branching out into real estate and banking. He is the founder of La Jolla Bank and Trust Company and La Jolla Pacific Savings Bank and currently serves as chairman of Manchester Financial Group.
BusinessWeek describes Manchester as "one of the largest private real estate developers in Southern California," adding that he has been "instrumental in developing San Diego's renowned waterfront, including the Manchester Grand Hyatt and the San Diego Marriott Hotel and Marina."
But prior to purchasing U-T San Diego, one industry in which Manchester did not have experience is journalism. "I consider them amateurs in the newspaper business," said one current staffer who requested anonymity fearing retaliation for criticizing Manchester and Lynch. "I think they've made some strategic mistakes. Doug Manchester doesn't know anything about running a newspaper."
But now the magnate controls the area's largest and most influential news operation, allowing him a new channel to push his political views.
Manchester is a major political donor who has contributed to numerous Republican candidates and organizations. This past cycle he donated more than $100,000 to super PACs supporting Mitt Romney's campaign. He also made maximum donations of $30,800 to the Republican National Committee, $5,000 to Mitt Romney's campaign, and $5,000 to the campaign of local GOP congressman Darrell Issa.
The developer also contributed $5,000 to Mitt Romney's Free and Strong America PAC and gave generously to Republican committees in Idaho, Massachusetts and Vermont. He similarly donated thousands to Romney, John McCain, and the RNC during the 2008 campaign, and gave $125,000 to the campaign to overturn same-sex marriage in California.
After securing ownership of the U-T, Manchester was able to give not only significant financial support but editorial support as well to failed Republican mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio in the 2012 San Diego mayor's race. The U-T's support for DeMaio was so blatant that his opponent, Rep. Bob Filner, used it as the basis for a 30-second ad that ran during the campaign.
In addition to giving $240,000 to groups supporting DeMaio's campaign through his financial company, the U-T owner published unusual front page editorials endorsing the Republican, including one that was a spadea "wrap-around" front page - a technique often used for major advertising promotions.
"What is confusing perhaps to readers is that they put editorials on these 'wrap-arounds' on the cover and that may give a message to readers that everything in this paper is going to support that," said Nelson of Point Loma Nazarene University. "What you don't know is what is not being covered because of a particular editorial position; that is the great unknown."
Manchester's efforts to swing the race were thwarted on election day when Filner defeated DeMaio in the race to succeed incumbent Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders.
"A Cheerleader For Business"
Shortly after Manchester took control of the paper, it announced a seismic shift in its focus that has drawn criticism and accusations of cheerleading for business. In a front page January 22, 2012 editorial, the paper declared that the city's waterfront should be redeveloped with hotels, an expansion of the convention center, and a new football stadium for the NFL's Chargers.
It made clear the issue was the newspaper's first priority, stating: "Beginning today, realizing this bold vision is priority No. 1 for U-T San Diego. We hope it becomes your vision and your priority as well."
The editorial also claimed the newspaper's plan "would transform the waterfront into a regional economic powerhouse far beyond what it is today. It would produce a convention center that could compete with any other center in the world. And we believe it is a far better approach than current plans to build a new stadium away from the waterfront and an expanded convention center as separate projects."
"The biggest thing that was a surprise to us as journalists was that the paper has declared a vision, to build a stadium downtown, the way it has been phrased in the paper as the U-T's vision," said Suzanne Marmion, director of news and editorial strategy at San Diego public radio station KPBS. "They think the paper's role is to be a cheerleader for San Diego and business and they stand by that, they are very transparent."
The paper has drawn scrutiny and shock from many employees for its aggressive promotion of business interests.
"Saying you are going to be a cheerleader for business... goes against everything we have been taught and trained as journalists," said one current U-T San Diego staffer who requested anonymity. "A lot of people have rolled their eyes at the front page editorials that have run...The quality of the paper is less because there's more fluff in the paper, an emphasis on running more society photos and celebrity photos, that space could be better used on actual news and information."
The editorial also drew criticism because it falsely suggested that Manchester did not have a financial stake in their proposal because he no longer owned hotels adjacent to the property that could benefit from the development.
KPBS has reported since that Manchester still has a financial interest in the hotels, explaining he sold them but still holds stock in the company that purchased them. The station further reported that Manchester confirmed in an email to the station that he has stock in the company, but did not reply to a follow-up request for details.
Neither Manchester nor Lynch have responded to requests from Media Matters for comment.
But U-T editor Jeff Light said the paper's Port coverage is not influenced by any ownership ties, stating in an email to Media Matters that "the owners of the U-T have no 'interest' in the Port in the sense of any financial interest. But it is true that the Port was thrust more into the public debate by the stadium plan promoted by John Lynch and the editorial board."
The U-T waterfront plan is one of two major proposals being reviewed, both of which put the price tag of a new stadium complex at about $1 billion, with uncertainty over how much would come from public coffers. The Chargers have threatened to move to Los Angeles, which has not had an NFL team since the 1994 season and is planning a new stadium of its own.
U-T CEO Lynch had pushed the idea of a publicly-funded new football stadium for years before the editorial's proposal. One long-time opponent of such plans, U-T sports columnist Tim Sullivan, says he was fired from the paper earlier this year for refusing to accept its vision as his own.
Sullivan, who lost his job in June after ten years at the paper, had used his column to criticize publicly-funded stadiums for years. In March, after the Manchester takeover and the U-T editorial board's declaration that a new stadium for the Chargers was at the heart of the paper's plan for the city's future, Sullivan wrote that the team was no threat to leave town without one.
Soon after his firing, Sullivan wrote that while he "can't read Lynch's mind," he believes that his "failure to endorse a new stadium without wondering whether that's good public policy, a justifiable expense or a good deal" was part of the reason for his firing.
"My position, I was not anti-stadium, I was anti-stupidity," he told Media Matters in a recent interview, later adding, "My tack had been, publicly and internally, that it was important that the paper be an advocate for responsibility to the taxpayer. We have to speak truth, but if we pick sides with the public over big business. I had great concerns with where things were headed."
Sullivan, now a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, said the paper's work has taken a hit under Manchester.
"I do think that there has been a significant change in the way the journalism is conducted in that building and whether that change is positive or negative is not consistent with a lot of the journalism standards that most of the people who work there were accustomed to and were taught in school," he said. "It's not something that I was comfortable with, but I was not ready to resign, they made that choice for me."
Neil deMause, co-author of the 1998 book, Field of Schemes (University of Nebraska Press), and editor of the website of the same name that tracks stadium deals, said the U-T San Diego support for a plan went beyond what most newspapers do to push for such publicly-funded projects.
"San Diego is an extreme case because you have somebody who is exercising such control over what appears in the newspaper," he told Media Matters. "You haven't seen a paper do something like they did, being at the forefront of proposing its own stadium plan."
He said most such projects "socialize the costs and privatize the profits, the public is putting up the lion's share of money and not getting the benefit."
After promoting its stadium/waterfront plan heavily in early 2012, the paper then took issue with the Unified Port of San Diego after the public agency was slow to pick up on the idea, launching what some staff and local observers considered to be an over-the-top investigation of the port with stories that also promoted the paper's plan.
"They dinged them for travel expenses," said Rob Davis, senior reporter at Voice of San Diego, the city's respected news website, who has covered the story for the past year. "It's not that the Port district should be up on some pedestal, but it is rightfully concerning to folks when that decision is made under an ownership that has, that is concurrently attacking the Port in its editorial pages."
But U-T Editor Jeff Light defended the paper's actions, although he said some mistakes in execution were made. In an email to Media Matters Light wrote, "I think it is fine for the paper to have a crusading editorial mission, and I don't think the one here is all that unusual." He downplayed criticisms of the paper's front page editorials, stating that "the orthodoxy over the page number that the opinions are printed on is obviously not something I subscribe to" and suggesting that those criticisms "probably has to do with the politics of the observers."
KPBS found another questionable move by the newspaper when it uncovered an email from Lynch to Port Commissioner Scott Peters that threatened to push for disbanding the Unified Port of San Diego if it signed a long-term lease with Dole Fruit Company, a move that would keep the paper's development plan from occurring.
In the email, Lynch stated that if the port extended the Dole lease, "this will become a major issue in the campaigns and the UT will be forced to lead a campaign to disband the PORT."
When confronted about the email by Voice of San Diego, Lynch stood by it, telling the website in an email, "I will rewrite it now. It is our belief the PORT is a layer of government that our City cannot afford."
"The Paper Of Record Has Become One Far Out On The Fringes"
The Union-Tribune dates back to 1928 when it was owned by Copley Press as the separate San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune, which merged in 1992 as the joint Union-Tribune. Copley sold the paper in 2009 to Platinum Equity of Beverly Hills, which later sold it to Manchester.
Under previous ownership groups, the paper gained prestige for a strong investigative news bent, winning the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting with coverage of the bribery scandal involving former Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, despite the fact that the paper regularly endorsed the representative.
The paper was also seen by staff and readers as a strong conservative editorial voice, often endorsing Republican candidates and pursing right-leaning topics. But observers say that since the Manchester takeover, the paper's editorial board has repeatedly adopted "fringe" views.
"It is the editorial page that is the biggest change. It's fringe Tea Party stuff, far right almost like a caricature. It comes off to me as an extension of the Republican Party," said David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat, a local alternative weekly.
"I am used to having a paper of record that serves as a foundation for the market. San Diego does not have that anymore," he added. "The paper of record has become one far out on the fringes. That is where the community is losing."
"Platinum Equity had turned it into a really nice paper, they had a community board that talked about issues and had built a lot of credibility," says David Maass, a staff writer at CityBeat. "Then suddenly the [Manchester] sale happened and, immediately, it started getting weird," he added, citing in part the paper's "arch conservative" editorials.
For example, a September 8, 2012 U-T editorial that criticized Obama cited the controversial film Obama 2016 by discredited conservative Dinesh D'Souza, as it made outlandish predictions about where the country would be in four years if the president was reelected.
Among the editorial's claims: the U.S. would have abandoned Israel; Obama would continue to wage a "war on God and life"; "if you are over 65 a ride to Mexico will become commonplace, as there will be rationed care in the U.S."; and "Death panels and other rationing plans will limit care."
City Beat reacted to the editorial with a scathing piece titled, "Crazy, Stupid, U-T," which labeled the editorial "too ridiculous for thoughtful conversation."
Prior to that, a July 22, 2012 U-T editorial declared Obama to be the worst president in U.S. history, while another recent editorial list of top presidents of all time placed George W. Bush in the top five.
The editorial board, which called this their Mount Rushmore, stated "the resolve the younger Bush showed in his response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks helped unite America for a time, and it led to policy changes that have kept America safe from subsequent attacks."
Most U-T journalists who spoke to Media Matters were critical of the editorial page's direction.
"I've heard complaints from people outside the paper and even some inside the paper about that," said one longtime U-T staffer when asked about the changing editorial approach. "These guys are very conservative, probably more than I am. The best and worst presidents, I wouldn't have done that. I was not happy we had Bush in the top 5."
Another veteran scribe added: "In the days of the Copley ownership, it was conservative, but it was respectful of other viewpoints. This ownership acts as thought it was handed the keys to a Maserati and began driving it at 130 miles per hour."
The paper's circulation has continued its years-long decline since Manchester took over. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX report indicated daily circulation had dropped 8.7 percent between September 2011 and September 2012, with Sunday circulation falling 4.6 percent.
This past year's drop in circulation took the U-T out of the top 25 daily newspapers for the first time in years. In a statement to KPBS, Lynch claimed that circulation had fallen at a higher rate before Manchester purchased the paper and that currently, "our circulation is surging and should be well above in next year's measurement."
While most major daily newspapers have seen such readership declines, observers contend anecdotal information indicates at least some of the cutback in paid readers is due to the paper's editorial shift.
Some observers add that the paper's image has been tarnished in other ways. Take U-T TV, the newspaper's online and cable channel, which launched in late May and offers 24 hours of news, interviews and some conservative and raw talk.
Notably, the cable channel's morning show includes former local radio host Scott Kaplan, who was fired from his previous job at XX1090 Sports Radio after making offensive comments about a woman on the air. Ironically, it was the U-T that first reported the incident, stating:
The station announced Kaplan "has officially left the organization" without giving a reason for his sudden departure. But a station source who was not authorized to discuss the matter said Kaplan was fired.
Kaplan's comments drew outrage after being reported last week in UT San Diego. On his daily sports talk radio show Jan. 25, Kaplan called Mountain West studio analyst Andrea Lloyd a "beast," an "animal," a "monster" and a "sasquatch of a woman."
"He hires a disgraced radio commentator to be the face of the new television project, a guy the newspaper had outed," said one former U-T staffer who left this year for another major daily. "It would sort of be like The Washington Post hiring Richard Nixon to be editor a few months after he resigned. It left a lot of people in the newsroom scratching their heads."
"The Concern Is A Lack Of Competition"
Concerns among staff and media critics about the future of the U-T and North County Times have grown since the Times purchase occurred on October 1.
Alison St. John of KPBS, who has reported on the U-T story, points to worries that the Manchester editorial influence could spread to the North County Times and possible future media property takeovers.
"I have spoken to some consumers who say that the problem here is that there is nobody in San Diego with enough resources to challenge the owner," she told Media Matters. "Competition is always a good thing, in his case competition seems to be failing in the sense that one owner has bought up the two main papers, the concern is a lack of competition."
Some employees have praised the new ownership for investing money into the newspaper, which has been seen in improved offices and facilities and some new hires. Light agreed with that sentiment, writing in an email to Media Matters: "The new owners have added resources, demanded quality and raised the stakes. Other places seem to be buying into a world of shrinking products, meager resources and diminishing returns. That's not the game here. We're pushing the envelope every day."
But while the U-T has taken about 50 of the North County Times' 74 employees, that leaves roughly two dozen out of work.
The U-T editor also contended the paper's image remains solid, with "unbiased and unflinching" coverage and an expanding paper. "In terms of image," Light added, "I leave that to the marketing department. I can't spend my time second-guessing what people will think."