Last March, after one of my semi-annual rants about the local daily newspaper, I received a most unusual invitation. Jeff Light, newly ensconced as Union-Tribune editor, asked me out to lunch. I wasn’t expecting a free lunch and conversation; I was just trying to get a letter to the editor published. After I cleaned the froth off my monitor—it was one of those moments when I shouldn’t have chugging diet Dr Pepper while reading my email–, I typed “sure, let’s do it” and hit the send button.
His secretary emailed my secretary (heh, heh) and lunch was arraigned. Having agreed to break bread with the man, the question became “What I am going to do with this opportunity?” Then the ol’ paranoia kicked in, and the question became “Why’s he doing this?” My parents thought he’d be offering me a job, but then again, they’ve always been prejudiced about my writing, even when it rankles their sensibilities.
I started asking my colleagues for ideas to steer the conversation and came up with a lot of blank stares. “You’re the expert here,” said one acquaintance, “you figure it out.”
Lunch came and went. Editor Light was intelligent and far from being one dimensional. Mostly he seemed interested in history; peppering me with questions about the history of the underground press in San Diego and the counter-culture years. I didn’t get the sense that he believed all the stuff about right-wing terrorism and police harassment. It does all sound a little over-the-top after all these years, and if I hadn’t been there and seen it with my own eyes, I guess I’d be a little skeptical, too. (For more on that era, see here and here)
Over the next few weeks, Light popped up just about everywhere in San Diego, talking with City Beat and VoiceofSanDiego.org along with plenty of stories in the mainstream media. As he was when I talked with him, he was always non-committal about the specifics of changes that might be coming at the Union-Tribune.
Last Tuesday, the re-designed paper hit the streets. I decided to give it a week before commenting, and what I’m saying today should be tempered with the understanding that bringing change to any large institution is always challenging. A few months back when the paper was sold I published a list of things that the daily paper needed to do to change its image, so that seems like a fair place to start with any critical analysis. (The quotes from the original article will be in italics, followed by my observations. And a letter grade that represents how I think they’re doing.)
1) Wake up and smell the coffee. San Diego isn’t the Navy retirement village that it used to be. Most of the City’s electorate is somewhere to the “left” of the newspaper’s editorial policies. The next employees that are offered buyouts should be: Karin Wiener (Editor), William Osborn (Senior Editor/Opinion) and Robert Kittle (Editor of the Editorial Page). The litmus tests for their replacements should be an open mind and a commitment to what’s best for the people of San Diego, the nation and the world.
Kittle and Wiener are gone, along with Rueben Navarrette, the only remaining non-white and syndicated columnist in the bunch. When Navarrette joined the editorial board in 2005, there were 10 members included an African American, a Latino and a woman. Now it’s four white dudes: long time Copley employee William Osborne, Orange County ex-pat Chris Reed, Chula Vista education expert Don Sevrens and Editorial cartoonist Steve Breen. Chris Reed’s rants (mostly published on-line) about how unions are evil have been sent “on hiatus”. Promises about more diversity on the opinion pages by UT management seem to have been overlooked. In short, it’s not frothing at the mouth right wing drivel on the editorial pages any more, it’s just your ordinary garden variety right wing drivel.
If anything, the paper has drifted towards more coverage of the military. While they can’t afford coverage of contentious community group meetings, they’ve sent a reporter to Afghanistan. Grade = D
2) Take most of the “National” news off the front page, unless it’s original content or has a direct local twist. The Wall Street Journal’s summary of noteworthy national stories is a good model for what you could do with the front page, given that your reading public gets most of its news elsewhere, anyway.
Wow, they actually did this. Grade = A+
3) Make a real commitment to local coverage. What goes on at City Hall and the County Building is only part of the picture. San Diego is made of neighborhoods and what goes on in those districts gets largely ignored unless it’s crime, scandal or sexually related. While I understand that all those things sell newspapers, I also know that there are a million other–sometimes positive–things that occur. If opening local bureaus isn’t feasible financially, then “outsourcing” may be a solution.
The jury’s still out on this one. There have been more stories about activities that are going on in neighborhoods, but the glitz and glamor (???) of City Hall continues to dominate the local section. That said, it does take a while to build the kind of relationships in communities that turn into actual news stories. From what I can grasp of the internal re-organization that has occurred at the paper, they are seeking to move in this direction. Grade = C+
4) Pick a local issue (or two) and use your bully pulpit to make a difference. Education, for instance, is a much larger issue than simply trying to find bad things to say about the teacher’s union. (Do magnet schools work?) Or transportation. Or urban sprawl.
No doubt about it, the UT jumped right on this one with their coverage of the Chelsea King murder. It worked. Things got to the point where I dreaded seeing any more coverage on some of the local TV news stations, who were quick to jump on the bandwagon. One can only hope they’ll be as concerned about other, less sensational issues in the future. And, given the UT’s history, it’s also fair to ask if this dreadful crime would have merited as much coverage if the child had lived south of Interstate 8. Grade = B-
5) Commit coverage to the activities of everyday people. For too long the paper has been a platform for the Copley family’s rich friends to show off their new gowns and tuxedos while attending dinners in support of the bourgeois charity of the moment. You know what story got the most hits (in 2008) on the OBRag website? Pictures of the Christmas parade. Go figure.
They’ve missed the mark here so far. Gone are the gimmes for the Copley family. Also gone is the person on the street-ish column by Michael Stetz (he remains as reporter). In his place is Tom Blair, lately of San Diego Magazine, with a fat rolodex (blackberry contacts list?) of people in high places acquired over his many years as a UT reporter and columnist. That leaves everyday folks with Logan Jenkins and Diane Bell. Grade = C-
6) Integrate the “paper” part of your media business with the web. Review websites, share cool links, reprint (& pay for) the best local blog postings. Have you ever looked at the number of foodie blogs in San Diego? It’s just about become a cottage industry. The same can be said about local sports blogs. And, of course, there are neighborhood blogs.
Oh, and, while you’re at it, your website really, really sucks.
Jeff Light at least knows about social media, and it’s evident with recent changes that have been made around the paper. They’re Tweeting and Facebooking, even though it’s sometimes a little awkward. They’re at least monitoring the OB Rag, if not other local blogs. And they have re-done the website (better, still not there yet). The concept of interacting with the new media (or even covering it, for the most part) hasn’t taken hold there yet. Most of us that dwell in the blogosphere feel like the main difference is that they’re trolling the local web for stories to rip off.
No better example exists of this than the re-engineered stories, carefully omitting any references to the original reporting at City Beat, about the County Board of Supervisors’ grant to Life Perspectives, a faith based group that provides teaching materials for private religious schools. We at the OB Rag also feel that the UT has appropriated news items that we’ve originated, the most recent example being our coverage of Thee Bungalow restaurant closing down.
One thing that I neglected to expound upon in the original article was the hostile atmosphere that oozes from the comments on-line. I really don’t get it, regardless of what point of view they’re advocating. I’d like to imagine how Jeff Light (or any other sane human) would feel about seeing phrases like “dirty Mongloid (sic)”, “monkey”, “chronically sedated piece of crap”, “screw you and your zebra pres” describing himself on the print pages of the newspaper? He wouldn’t allow it. But apparently it’s all good, particularly when (some of) these phrases are used (yesterday) to describe OB Rag editor Frank Gormlie on the UT’s web site. And the point here ISN’T Frank. It’s about the kind of discourse you encourage and allow. The website remains a cesspool, with wing nuts circling about like flies. Grade = D-
7) Get off your dammed pedestal. The era of “we know what’s best” journalism and editorializing are over. There are a lot of voices out there. The AP stylebook is not The Bible. Make sure that you hear, respect, and even—gasp—give some of them the opportunity to replace some of your tired old op-ed columnists.
I’ll give Jeff Light credit. He’s reached out and talked with a lot of people. However, it appears as though nobody said anything that impressed him enough to actually widen the number of points of view expressed at the UT. Grade =D+
8) Having said all this, there are parts of the paper that I would urge you to continue. The comics and the puzzles are no-brainers. (The paper’s failure to monetize these sections is perplexing to me, however.) Scott Lafee’s science articles are actually informative and, given the large numbers of people employed in science related industries, it would seem to me that this kind of reporting would be something worth expanding, even.
This seems like a good place to discuss the print edition’s recent design. Many of the people commenting at the UT’s website HATE it. But then again, they pretty much hate everything connected with any kind of change. I found it pretty amusing that people were complaining about the type size, which didn’t change, except for the “Dear Abby” column that runs alongside the comics. The type styles used in the paper did change, and I find the new body copy to be more readable than ever. Not so much for the headlines’, which are now using a sans serif face that looks out of place. However, the increased use of “sub-heads”, the smaller headlines beneath a bigger one, makes the paper much more user friendly.
I’m not so enamored with the new “UT” logo, but I don’t hate it either. I give it a big fat “meh” , which is the written equivalent of a shoulder shrug. The new “sections” also get a shrug, except for the “C” –as in Business Section. It’s themed, so they say, with each day of the week meriting more focused coverage on different topics. Three of the thirteen items gracing the front page of the August 25 C section concerned BioTech & Healthcare, and the only copy inside that was on topic was a continuation of a front page story. Promises, promises.
Scott Lafee went and retired. The science coverage is…not up to snuff anymore. Never met the guy, but I really thought he was on the ball.
Overall, I think that the “new UT” does look better. Looking good and being good are two vastly different things, and they’ve got a long way to go on the second count. Someday, maybe they’ll even print one of my letters to the editor. Grade = B
Now, for your enjoyment, here are some of the more amusing comments that were posted at Sign on San Diego about the paper’s re-design:
- Man, nobody gets this excited about a new newspaper format. If you think this is good, wait till you see the new phone book!
- You can put all the lipstick in the world on it, but it is still a pig underneath! People want real content, not format changes trying to hide the fact that this paper still sucks.
- Where can I get some of the drugs this new editor is on!? They sound amazing!
- So I guess after all of the layoffs at the U-T there is no one left who is actually able to spell out “Union-Tribune”, so they just had to go with “U-T” on the front page.
Here’s the official response from the paper:
**Thank you for your feedback. The newspaper industry is changing rapidly. We have to change with it. Our new “U-T” logo represents the investment we’ve made in San Diego and our commitment to being a forward-thinking, community-oriented media company of the future. That forward-looking vision isn’t confined to the print product. You’ll see us extend our offerings on mobile and tablets. The new logo signals the evolution of this company, and the changes we’re making to meet the needs of you and our other readers.
We have a new nameplate, a signal of our company’s investment in San Diego and our commitment to being a forward-thinking, community-focused media company.”