The San Diego Union-Tribune is on the Rocks

by on October 21, 2011 · 5 comments

in Media, San Diego

The original OB Rag and other underground newspapers had their vending machines “plucked off the streets” by U-T vendors on orders from high-up

By Frank Green / CounterPunch.org

Print media’s decline in the United States can be tracked in microcosm in San Diego, longtime home to one of the country’s most conservative, reactionary dailies.

Local progressives have been watching in bemusement for several years as The San Diego Union-Tribune – once Richard Nixon’s favorite news source – radically chops staff, loses circulation and, more importantly, sees its once-dominant and domineering position as a right-wing political and cultural force in the area fade.

The fall of the U-T, which some newsroom insiders believe is heading for its last press run, would mirror the predicament of other major U.S. dailies long confronted by the ubiquitous Internet and similar burgeoning alternative media, as well as by a dwindling passion for reading among the young.

“My guess is, (the U-T) is barely breaking even, if that,” said a veteran staffer. “Everybody here is looking over their shoulder.”

The turbulence at the U-T commenced in 2006 when the paper announced the first of what would be seven rounds of layoffs and buyouts of newsroom, circulation and other staff (even the cafeteria closed).

Three years later, publisher David Copley, whose rabidly conservative family had monopolized the local newspaper industry and dominated the city’s civic affairs for decades, sold the business to Platinum Equity, a Beverly Hills-based private equity group.

However, Platinum’s involvement has hardly cut the flow of red ink. Daily circulation has dipped in the past three years from 242,705 to 218,614, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

Efforts by Platinum to attract subscribers with a hyper-local emphasis in its news columns have failed to draw readers’ interest, as have circulation promotions which essentially give the paper away. (A U-T booth at a recent home improvement show at the local convention center, for instance, offered new subscribers $10 worth of free Starbucks gift cards for a $10-a-month sub.)

Some observers nevertheless think that Platinum’s plans for the U-T have little to do with keeping it in the black, or even in print.

Indeed, Platinum announced in July that it had hired the investment banking advisory firm Evercare Partners to examine “strategic alternatives” for the U-T – code words to some for finding a buyer.

It would all seem to be business as usual for Platinum, which owns more than 100 companies in such sectors as infotech, telecommunications and real estate. Platinum’s annual aggregate revenue from these firms is $27 billion or so.

The company has a reputation for acquiring distressed properties like the U-T at bargain rates, then quickly turning them around for sale at a tidy profit.

Potential U-T suitors, according to the newsroom rumor mill, include Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Tribune Co. and local hotel magnate Doug Manchester.

Murdoch’s interest in the U-T seems unlikely, however, since he would face a recalcitrant News Corp. board still fuming over this summer’s newspaper hacking scandal in the United Kingdom. The board would also seemingly balk at extending the company’s already substantial involvement in the shrinking newspaper industry, however enthusiastic Murdoch might be for supplementing his print portfolio.

Still other speculation has the paper eventually merging with various large regional newspaper properties (the Orange County Register, even the Los Angeles Times) to form one pervasive Southern California daily.

Such a consolidation could be operated with a fraction of current newsroom staffs and costs.

But at least one U-T editor thinks Platinum will instead soon simply stop printing the paper altogether – “it’s essentially worthless now,” the editor said – and sell the real estate on which the paper’s editorial offices and printing press are situated in the lush commercial hub of San Diego’s Mission Valley.

The editor noted that Platinum paid between $40 million and $50 million for virtually all of the U-T’s assets in the 2009 deal, even though the U-T’s headquarters alone reportedly sits on land assessed at about $90 million.

Progressives seemingly would hail the demise of the once-pervasive U-T, which for years has maintained a stridently right-wing sensibility in its opinion pages and news columns alike.

Among the lowlights:

 – Well into the 1970s, U-T publisher James Copley routinely lent his political writers gratis to the successful mayoral, gubernatorial and senate campaigns of Pete Wilson, as well as numerous other Republican politicos. The late Herbert Klein, for example, worked alternately for years as an editor at the newspaper and a mouthpiece for GOP candidates, all the while collecting a Copley paycheck. Klein ultimately served as communications director for Nixon, who often referred to the Union as his favorite newspaper.

 – In the late-1960s, a memo issued from the publisher’s office advised editors to avoid running photos of black people on section fronts. The policy remained in force, if unofficially, into the mid-1970s.

 – During the same period, The San Diego Union (which later merged with its sister publication the Evening Tribune to form the Union-Tribune) targeted the late Marxist philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse in conjunction with threats and harassment by the Secret Army Organization, a militant right-wing vigilante group made up of San Diego Police officers and military veterans. Marcuse, who was teaching at UC San Diego at the time, often was wrongly characterized in Union news columns and editorial cartoons as a dangerous Soviet agent promoting violent revolution in the U.S. Union executives routinely bragged that the Marcuse campaign was designed to run him out of town, if not kill him.

 – The vending machines of alternative newspapers like the O.B. Rag, the San Diego Door and the San Diego Free Press were routinely plucked off the streets by Union circulation drivers in the late-1960s at the behest of Victor Krulak, an executive in the U-T publishing office. (Krulak had earlier served as President John Kennedy’s counterinsurgency expert in Vietnam.)

 Through it all, the newspaper used its news columns to pimp for conservative candidates and issues near to the heart of the Copley family, while downplaying or completely ignoring alternative progressive voices.

This stifling pro-business, pro-military stance has hardly diminished in the new century.

For instance, the U-T unwaveringly backed the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, including giving ad nauseum support for George W. Bush’s premise that Iraq was a repository for so-called weapons of mass destruction.

The intimate nature of the long Copley-GOP relationship could until recently be seen in the U-T executive offices, where a large photograph of David Copley, former editor Karin Winner and Bush – all three of them in the throes of laughter – had been prominently displayed for years.

A cursory read of Thursday’s U-T indicates that little has changed under Platinum’s stewardship.

The op-ed page features a Q&A with Mayor Jerry Sanders and other business leaders griping about how difficult it has been to find money to build a new football stadium for the Chargers, while the lead piece in the local section trumpets the police union’s endorsement of Republican newcomer Nathan Fletcher against liberal Democrat Bob Filner in the local mayoral race.

Of course, all of this debate about the U-T’s pernicious influence through the years may soon be relegated to the stacks.

A Web site dedicated to U-T retirees carried still a fresh newsroom rumor Thursday that the paper is being sold and that the transaction with a private buyer is in escrow.

Herbert Marcuse is smiling somewhere.

FRANK GREEN is a veteran journalist and lives in the San Diego area. He can be reached at fjkbgreen@cox.net

Read the rest of this article at counterpunch.org

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar doug porter October 21, 2011 at 11:10 am

Interesting story. Maybe it’s me just being jealous that some other writer gets piece in here that goes after the UT, but I have to disagree with the writer’s premise that the paper is in danger of folding any minute now. It will be folding soon enough, but for now it seems that they’ve made enough tweaks to delay the inevitable, say 2017 or so.
One thing I found interesting in this article was the author’s claim about newspaper vending boxes being ripped off. When I was at the Door we always suspected that was happening, particularly at high traffic locations life 24 hour restaurants, etc, but we never had any proof. Does anybody know if there is any actual evidence about this practice occurring?

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avatar Patty Jones October 21, 2011 at 11:43 am

I posted this article because I knew you’d find it interesting.

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avatar mr.rick October 21, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Some one on a cable political news station was wondering why papers were in such decline. I figure the death blow was Judith Miller and the stunts over weapons of mass destruction. Cheny and that crooked cabal planting trash in the Times then conveniently refering to them, kind of soured the public once and for all.I mean we can get more pertinient news from the OB Rag, and we don’t have to worry about it’s veracity. If a person wants BS you would try the Inquirer not the San Diego Union? But it’s as though after thirty years of propaganda the whole country got brain washed. Maybe we’re shaking it off.One can only hope.

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avatar Goatskull October 21, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Or simply the whole concept of buying, holding, and reading an actual newspaper is/has become dated, regardless of the political bent. A lot of the younger employees/military staff in my office think of reading a newspaper as “so yesterday” and jokingly ask if people who DO read newspapers still have 8 track stereos in their car. Kind of brutal to hear that but that’s the direction things are going in.

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avatar ut reader October 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm

I hear Doug Manchester is interested in buying the UT….

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