The dystopian author Mike Davis once wrote that San Diego—the city where I live, 100 condo-packed miles south of Los Angeles—is "arguably the nation's capital of white collar crime." In fact, Davis devoted a book to the claim, Under the Perfect Sun, whose thesis underscores the old adage that "San Diego is a sunny place where lots of shady people go." Davis describes a history of graft and deception in which the city's business monopolists mingled with landowners and indentured politicians to create a Petri dish for "dynamic, even visionary, self-interest." Though such revelations have been reported on for decades, this view of the city's seedy past is a narrative few of the city's three million residents know. Why? Because the public—numbed by surf culture, sea breezes, and the Pacific Fleet—bought the boosters' story instead.
Who authored that golden story? San Diego's "city fathers." Celebrated padres in a two-century lineup include Father Junipero Serra (Indian enslaver); John Spreckels and Alonzo Horton (foundational real estate developers); George Marston (department store magnate); Ray Kroc (McDonald's creator); C. Arnholdt Smith (banking czar and embezzler); Pete Wilson (mayor, California governor, author of anti-immigrant Prop 187); John Moores (tech-boom carpetbagger, stadium builder); and the Copleys, father, son, and the son's second wife who cornered the daily newspaper market for 81 years.
In 1992, the Copleys merged the conservative San Diego Union with the tad less conservative San Diego Tribune. In November 2009, the paper sold to Platinum Equity, an investor group from Beverly Hills. Two years later, Platinum unloaded its prize for $110 million to Douglas "Papa Doug" Manchester (the nickname was given him by his employees), hotelier, banker, developer, same-sex marriage opponent, and major Republican-party donor. Manchester, who is 70, is a multimillionaire; he was divorced in 2009, after a 43-year marriage.
The paper was rechristened the U-T San Diego, and its slogan outfitted anew: "The World's Greatest Country & America's Finest City." Manchester and John Lynch—who has managed and owned radio stations and, with a stake in the U-T venture, is Manchester's CEO—are fast-erecting a local media empire, buying up the last few daily papers in the county and shifting their news ops onto multiple platforms.
An aggressively acquisitive publisher, Manchester is using his new platform to reignite downtown redevelopment, largely to put up a new stadium for the NFL Chargers. He hasn't been subtle with this pro-development agenda either. Indeed, in the year since the takeover, Manchester's heavy-handedness has risen to an ugly national story. Two articles have been widely read: David Carr's piece, "Newspaper as Business Pulpit," in The New York Times, and Joe Strupp's overview, "The Fall of The San Diego Union-Tribune," at Media Matters.
Previous to Manchester's ownership the paper was valued by the community, with a long history and four Pulitzers to its credit. One came in 2006 for a series by the Union-Tribune and Copley News Service staffs (reporters Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer were singled out) on the bribery scandal of Congressman Duke Cunningham and his ensuing felony conviction; another, in 2009, went to editorial cartoonist Steve Breen. Opinions clash as to whether the newspaper has been a "well-respected daily." The morning and evening editions long endorsed conservative policies but welcomed alternative views. Hard news (fires, accidents, crime) marked the paper's mission.
Since the takeover, the newspaper's popularity has taken a tumble with subscribers. This is how a typical complaint goes: "Papa Doug is now our official representative of the 1% Club. I'm canceling my subscription. Why should I buy from the 1%er? Besides, he's against everything I'm for and has the power of his press to tout his point of view." The numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations reveal an 8.7 percentage drop in the daily and 4.6 fall in the Sunday edition between September 2011 and September 2012. During that same period, the numbers for the Los Angeles Times have grown: 11.9 percent for the daily and 6.2 for the Sunday edition. (Lynch, whose every golf shot zips with topspin, told local NPR affiliate, KPBS, that the U-T's circulation is "surging.")
Voice of San Diego, an excellent local nonprofit news organization, first reported that Manchester's purchase of the paper's land holdings (13 city acres, valued at $100 million) and his development mania, rooted in core Republican issues, were the driving forces behind the takeover. And that's true in part. But it's not the long-term financial goal. Aligning and monetizing local news and entertainment via digital media—the way national news corporations operate—now appears to be Manchester and company's true purpose. As first-time owners, their grab of San Diego's newspaper has come about for two reasons: one, to propagandize for a downtown stadium boom and, two, to steer together social media, cable TV, and mobile news apps with professional sports teams, tourist agendas, and the last vestiges of a print-based news institution. In these two directions, it seems, is where the money lies. Lynch predicts their foray will be a "fully integrated media company." As such it may make "Papa Doug" the Rupert Murdoch of San Diego.
After purchasing the U-T, Manchester retained Platinum's editor, Jeff Light, and laid off just a few employees; since then, he has canned many more. The most notorious incident involved well-respected sports columnist, Tim Sullivan, who was fired after raising questions about the downtown stadium proposal. Manchester has also squeezed coverage (more wire, less investigation and beat—not surprising given the fewer number of reporters) and Mickey Moused the paper's appearance. Its print layout now resembles its website, boxy chunks with lots of photos, graphics, and headlines and less text, an obvious hint that traditional readers get used to the inevitable shift to digital. (Light was one of the group of newspaper editors who didn't run the series of Doonesbury strips about a compulsory transvaginal exam, saying, "[D]o words like 'slut,' and 'rape,' really belong next to Linus and Lucy?")
Last year, the U-T editorial board published a front-page editorial in January and a follow-up in March that hyped Manchester's bayfront redevelopment as a "visionary approach." The project, the paper claimed, will ensure San Diego becomes a "world-class city." The plan features a stadium built with private and public funds, which, to borrow the great phrase of Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes, "will socialize the costs and privatize the profits." Oh yeah, there's also a small park and a smaller beach thrown in for locals. "San Diego's glorious downtown waterfront hasn't come close to realizing its true potential." Naysayers query, potential for whom? Redevelopers answer, tourists. As if the city, like Las Vegas, must always be for sale to its visitors.
In September of last year, Manchester bought the North County Times, a regional daily, laid off 80 (including two dozen from the newsroom), and folded its operation into the U-T. One reporter tweeted that the new boss told the staff: "He wants us to be 'positive' in writing news, and to write nice stories about business owners." (As self-disclosure: I have personal experience with this company-wide push for positivity. Light once refused to run an assigned book review I wrote when it came back critical of one of Manchester's Libertarian buddies. Light's reason, by way of his book editor, was, "When it's a local author and the review is negative, we don't publish it.")
In addition to critical reviews and fleeing subscribers, Manchester has suffered another disappointment: the Port of San Diego nixed his downtown proposal. This past summer, the port re-upped a 24.5-year lease with Dole to unload bananas at the dock terminal that Manchester wants to tear down. (Lynch shot back that he's petitioning the state to shut down the port's authority.) In November, the Manchester-endorsed mayoral candidate—a young Republican, pro-development, anti-taxation city councilmember, Carl DeMaio, who also had his own front-page endorsement—lost to an old guard ten-term Democrat congressman, Bob Filner. That a nouveau newspaper baron could not call in his political chips as easily as he thought has left Manchester undeterred: He's in the running to purchase a portion of the Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, now that it's emerged from bankruptcy.
It's no secret that associating yourself with a trusted name is the surest means to self-legitimize. And with Lynch and Manchester's purchase of the San Diego Union-Tribune, with its long history and four Pulitzers, they have bought some legitimacy. Maybe that's not all washed away. Dean Nelson, professor of journalism at San Diego's Point Loma Nazarene University, told me in an interview that despite Manchester's takeover, "I'm not convinced that the news side has been compromised." He still subscribes and finds most coverage "issuing from a neutral standpoint." Some of his students also work as interns for the paper.
According to Nelson, newspaper owners used to abhor internal controversy made public. Strife diluted the fidelity of the audience, cooled the re-ups of the ad buyers. Indeed, playing to that audience with a paper's integrity, forums, community values, and its reporters' devotion to "afflicting the comfortable," worked: it sold papers. But, Nelson noted, "I don't think going after the largest possible audience is the point anymore." Now that the owners are experimenting with how news is delivered and consumed, they're less fearful of alienating audiences and advertisers, in part, because they are cultivating alternate ways to reach them. Audiences and advertisers seem to go wherever the media push them.
It's hard not to apply this Darwinian transmutation to the U-T power play. Managers of media companies see growth in the shifting technologies of their field and in garnering what was once unwanted attention; conflicts that used to damage the brand now revitalize it. Today, the takeover kingpin craves publicity, loves controversy, wants to "be" the news. To Manchester, it seems, that's what a paper is for.
Plutocrats once courted positive press coverage with their advertising dollars. Now they buy the means of producing such coverage and produce it with themselves as headlines. The way a newspaper sells its products with less footwork than they did in days of yore is to become the news you cover.
To find how the self-interest of news works, we have only to listen to Lynch's crowing about his and Manchester's tendentiousness. In an interview with KPBS, he said that as owners, we "have the right to express our core values. We are pro-family, pro-military, and [have] pro-conservative business values. We believe those things have always fired the engine of development in San Diego and the entire country." His comments ring with evangelical conviction: "I don't know anybody who is not for those things." They also ring with a touch of McCarthyism. With the Associated Press, he changed the line to, "Anybody who isn't"—pro-family, pro-military, pro-conservative—"shouldn't be living here."
Harsh, I know. But why be surprised by his pro-American stance. This is the kind of loyalty Lynch and his partner are seeking. Dean Nelson's nifty phrase for this phenomenon is "tribalizing the communication." With news organizations, these days, you "only listen and speak to your own tribe," he said in our interview. "That's how you maintain your identity. Having a broader ideas-driven [news] organization—that was a luxury of the past."
Most famously, Fox News has blazed this trail, tribalizing its "communication." But we're now well accustomed to that. What's still fairly new is how fast media tribalization is spreading via multiple platforms as the prime marketing goal for most news organizations. The reason is obvious. Those platforms are turning profits for those who own them or have a stake in their many technology devices: in short, media companies want to make sure their chosen news source comes up on your Android. You would think the way to accomplish this is to appeal to a broad range of readers and users via the professionalism and integrity of a quality news group.
That's the last thing Manchester and Lynch are after. Theirs is a much more sophisticated target: sports fans whose loyalty to the local team is unquestioned and much easier to tap than their political allegiance. Such fans will click for scores and game updates wherever they are. Add pro-sports to pro-conservative and pro-military as part of the U-T platform. Since the takeover, the paper has more than doubled its sports coverage—on the website, on their cable TV channel (more on that below), and in the paper itself. On any given day, four of the top five e-mailed articles are sports-related—for example, mid-December's top "trending" story was "How the [5-8] Chargers can make the playoffs," a plan that ended with loss #9. Here's an audience base whose numbers tower above those who feel a paper's weather page, obituaries, and coupons are subscription-worthy. Manchester can only build the downtown sports-and-entertainment megaplex with the fans on his side.
Manchester-style media has ushered in another new news tack—socializing the content. In TV and online formats, what is being delivered, in addition to the commercial-rich environment, is less about the news and more of what the source or personality who's delivering it thinks about the news—better yet, what the source or personality says about the news as he/she conveys it. It's talk radio applied to TV and streaming video.
To illustrate, I offer one of Lynch's innovations, his cable-TV station, U-T TV, launched last May. If you were programming a local station with news/weather/sports, morning/midday/dinnertime/late-night, you might adhere to the audience-tested model every local news station in America adheres to: quick undeveloped blips, with pictures, of "news you can use." Not Lynch. He raided his raw-talk radio shows for "on-air personalities," giving them unprecedented license to comment on the news they report.
Come 6 a.m., on U-T TV, it's time for, "Scott, B.R. + Amber," "a live five-hour personality driven show with topical news, entertainment and captivating guests." Scott is veteran shock jock, Scott Kaplan. B.R. is an ex-Chargers player, Billy Ray Smith. Amber, who is in her late 20s, is the only one with a degree in broadcast journalism. Kaplan, not unlike the dimwits who surround Ron Burgundy in Anchorman (also set in "classy" San Diego), worked for Lynch on a morning radio show that was canceled a year ago because of sexist comments Kaplan made. (The reason for the firing, unexpectedly enough, gets a full airing on the U-T site.) Not surprisingly, in so far as any of them understands politics, the trio's right-wing bias mirrors the owners.
Here's a randomly chosen yet typical segment, post-Newtown shooting, from December 2012. Propped before the "video wall," Amber reads a breaking story: police have found a 41-year-old mother who's been stabbed to death; her 8-year-old daughter is critically wounded from multiple cuts. Police say there are no suspects at the moment, but the investigation is ongoing. Scott says, "I guess we'll have to ban all knives now." Amber: "And machetes, too." Scott: "Kitchen knives and butter knives and plastic knives." To which B.R. replies: "Not butter knives. I'm carrying one right now." This, in between, bouts of giggling.
So far, the trio is not provoking viewer responses. Not yet. It's more likely that no one who watches them finds their nattering offensive.
At U-T TV, director of news and programming, J.R. Mahon, describes the morning show as abandoning "the same lead stories" and "the same stereotypical looking people" for something that's not "boring." Mahon said, "We’re not separating TV, newspapers, online; we're integrating content, social media and news on different platforms—and talking to each other while we do it." OK, but it's more evident that the talent is talking among themselves so the talk rises only to their level of expertise. Which (by design) is set at sports and tanning.
Is this a viable business model? Let's say it becomes successful. Ad revenue means the owners do well, and the talent collects a bonus. Let's says it's unsuccessful, which is more likely, especially as it'll never pull an audience as the "Today" show can. No doubt, with their diversified company, Manchester and Lynch will write off the loss. Still, the format is set; nothing needs to change. Welcome to an infotainment program that never improves because news-talk TV requires its hosts be as uninformed as the audience they are speaking to. Which is to say journalists need not apply.
The way of the digital takeover, pushing a news organization from print to broadcast to online and mobile media, leads us to a third factor. After tribalizing the audience and socializing the content comes "vocalizing" the delivery. U-T TV producers put up videos and webcams and websites on the video wall as well as run live interviews with other talkers, reporters, and guests, all of it in the same chatty mold. With the talent having so much to say about the news, lifestyle, sports, movies, politics—much of it inane—amounts to a new news product.
What's more, on-air commentary about the news as news simulates a family (or, if you like, bar patrons, office workers, linked-in groups) who talk while interacting with, or sit in the presence of, the TV or streaming video. The point is, whatever simulates the mediated simulation of life—broadcast with any screen-ready, user-driven, low-info, high-fun interactive form—is where the tied-in want to be.
The most despair-inducing element of Manchester's new rule is that as the cult of on-air and online personality remakes journalism into a club of the like-minded, a kind of fortress mentality grows around and insulates that club. Case in point. This month Manchester and Lynch tried to get the new mayor to stop the city from issuing fines for compliance code violations, some going back ten years, at Manchester's Grand Del Mar resort hotel. Every online/print news source in town reported this story, which culminated in an $87,000 fine.
Everyone except the U-T.
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Journalist, critic, and memoirist Thomas Larson has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader for thirteen years. His latest book, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," is in paperback. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in creative nonfiction at Ashland University, Ashland, OH. Photo by Joe Wolf.