‘Dear Abby’ Falls Off Comic Page: Sizing Up the New U-T

by on August 26, 2010 · 19 comments

in Culture, Economy, Media, San Diego

U-T new nameplateLast 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.”

U-T old versionLunch 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.

U-T new designI’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.”

u-t martiallaw

Here is some fun we had with the old Union-Tribune in November 2007. Make sure you click on the image for a readable version. (Graphic and text by Patty Jones and Frank Gormlie.)

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

doug porter August 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm

NEWSFLASH! according to our Twitter feed, the UT has apologized to City Beat for taking their story without credit. …am checking with sources to see if hell froze over.


annagrace August 26, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Good piece of analysis Doug. I do take exception with your B grade for the “new look.” I sat down today with the new improved U-T from Sunday. The putrid color palette results in low contrast fuzzy images and severe eye fatigue. The ads, many in color, many over sized are annoying visual litter and they are everywhere. Remember our high school days when we would use a large typeface and double space our reports because we were short on content and needed to turn in two pages? That’s how the print copy feels.

Yes, the online version still sucks. Over the past 6 months or so I have found even more problems with syntax in the “teaser” lead ins to the the articles. How can I take what is written seriously if it is unintelligible by virtue of the poor word choices and lack of clarity? The on-line comments have become the noxious domain of knuckle dragging, fire breathing troglodytes. It speaks volumes about a business that rolls so easily with comments that are creepy and prurient, over and above the merely cruel and ignorant. The comment section fulfills the role of the Greek chorus, filling in the blanks about the main actors themselves- the U-T owners and editors. Keep it classy, guys!

Yesterday signonsandiego posted an article about the follow-up meeting convened by interfaith groups on the topic of the homeless in OB. How did it get pitched by the U-T? “Some OBceans still love their bums.” I find it real hard to love a horse’s ass Mr. Cadelago. I’m giving the online version an E, Doug. E for execrable.

The new U-T? You can slice it thick or you can slice it thin, but it’s still baloney.


BillRayDrums August 26, 2010 at 4:00 pm

They should have an open forum where people can “hang out” and banter.


Gary Ghirardi August 26, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Your a nice man Doug Porter and are looking for change. For me trying to re-conceive a newspaper that reflects a very arrogant culture and a community whose prosperity is continually based on militarism (military and security contracts) is trying to paint wings and a halo on the monster that resides in all of us. If the UT, or any media vehicle in San Diego, chose to hold up a mirror to what we are in relation to the rest of the world and each other, I’d wager that you would start getting better commentators in the comments sections.


Jeff Light August 26, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Good piece, Doug. I learned a lot from you at that lunch, and I actually went back and read the pdfs of some of the amazing the early issues (which seem to predate the rag’s own redesign…) I’m not sure I agree with every grade, but why quibble? We’re working on it.
The print quality of the paper is not good right now, because we don’t have all of our new pressroom equipment working together properly yet. That will take a few more weeks.
Call me. You owe me a lunch.
— Jeff


annagrace August 26, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Hey Jeff- Why exactly does Doug owe you a lunch? Because you picked up the tab the last time? (And you could write it off as a business expense?) So OK, have your secretary call Doug’s secretary….


fss August 26, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Nice Reply hope Doug appreciates it
I can’t say I am thrilled with the UT’s new look but it will take time for me to adjust and I will get use to it. At least the paper is trying. The news sucks but that isn’t the papers fault. I actually like the new local section a little more community coverage. I’ll give it time and hope to find a free one on the park bench


doug porter August 27, 2010 at 10:27 am

Thanks Jeff. Things sure have changed over the past 40 years. Talk to you soon.


Doug August 27, 2010 at 9:29 am

Well I guess I’m not surprised that you consider anyone who doesn’t believe that people should be entitled to huge pension in excess of$150,000. Those of use who are fiscally moderate or conservative are always painted as spewing “right wing drivel”. But let me ask you this, when it’s 2025 and more than 50% of the budget is dedicated to employee costs, how high will the sales tax rate have to be to pay for it all 15%? 20%?


doug porter August 27, 2010 at 10:18 am

(Read your comment out loud to your self, it doesn’t make any sense.)


Doug August 27, 2010 at 11:01 am

Sorry about that post. I tried to edit it but I guess that’s not allowed. My point was that there are some people who are not right wing nutcases who have watched as this once great city has been taken to it’s knees by the mayor and city council. Just because I am prudent and anti public employee unions, does not mean I am a right wing nutcase. Thanks for your consideration.

PLHS Class of 1966


Editordude August 27, 2010 at 11:15 am

Doug PLHS ’66 – Sorry, we don’t allow commenters to edit – sorry we tried that a while ago, unless you can give the Class of 66 special, secret handshake.


doug porter August 27, 2010 at 1:33 pm

i don’t think i singled out pensions anywhere in the article. and you can blame the current pension problems on both the left and the right, on management and labor. (as i recall this all started with the City’s desire to make things nice for the 1996 GOP convention.)
Doug Porter
PLHS Class of 1968


Doug August 27, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I was referring to this comment:

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.

Since they are very left of center on immigration issues, I assumed that your “right wing drivel” comment referred to their numerous editorials regarding pensions. If you were talking about something else, then I my assumption was in error.


Frank Gormlie August 27, 2010 at 10:16 am

Doug P – I’m sure glad Jeff DID NOT offer you a job, man, cuz where would we be now?

Nice analysis, and great way to start – by using your earlier guideposts. You methodically went through your points to see how the new changes conformed to your recommendations. This is the way to do it – and it’s called “reasoning”. I have to agree with Anna however, and think the over all grade is too high.

I just read the front cover of the LA Times from August 26th, and there’s more news on the front cover than in all of the new U-T front section.

Jeff, did you dig our ‘making fun’ of the ol’ paper make you giggle?


Scott LaFee August 27, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Doug: Thank you for the kind words, both back in March and in the current article. One correction: I didn’t retire, at least not in the broadest sense of the word. I left the paper in late-April to become senior public information officer for research at UCSD Health Sciences. It was a tough decision after more than two decades in journalism and 17 years at a science writer at the U-T. I will always miss aspects of the news business, particularly the folks in the newsroom. But that said, I’m still writing about science, still working with some of the best researchers in the world, so life is good and interesting.


RHR August 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Thanks for a thoughtful interpretation of the “new” UT. I’ve met a reporter from the UT who told be that he has met and spoken with the new management more in the last six months than he had spoken with the Copleys in the last 20. With Winner and Kittle gone, the paper’s editorial page will get better, I’m sure.


Rich Dittbenner August 28, 2010 at 11:06 am

I enjoyed your article about the re-engineering of the U-T. Your observation about the challenges of organizational change is spot-on. In the main, I would agree with your observations about the content improvements, particularly the early moves toward more local coverage. The appearances of editorials that pose more thoughtful questions to the mostly-educated audience of the U-T instead of an incessant stream of rants and mendacious attacks from a prominent departed editor or a current blogger are welcome improvements. Stability in reporter beats will be welcome as well. There have been eight reporters covering higher education (collectively, San Diego’s largest industry paying family-supporting wages) during the past three and one-half years. The recent assignment of former higher education and South Bay reporter, Tanya Sierra, to the Watchdog unit and Pat Flynn to higher education are early signs of stability and attention to the need to provide high quality reporting to these beats.

Your comment about moving away from the straightjacket of the AP Style Guide for the mostly baby-boomer readers of the U-T may be a tougher road for Jeff Light to travel- at least in the short-run. I am not sure that the over 55 years of age readers are ready to embrace language as living and vibrant to the extent that words familiar as adverbs are now deployed as nouns (or, the dropping of some definite articles) in the pages of such well-regarded publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Sports Illustrated, or The Times of London- among many others.

But, it will happen. Microsoft’s PowerPoint has become the norm for the structure of presentations worldwide, Twitter communications are influencing clipped (and clear) communications across three of four generations, and the internet has become the dominant media where issues of style and presentation of content are being mediated.

Now, one is more likely to find rich and elegant prose online than in ink. The impact on audiences can be immediate and forceful across culture, language, and generations. And, it can be found in unexpected places invisible to the majority of the U-T’s (and OB Rag’s) readers.

Consider the nationwide impact of LA-based Univision talk-show host, Eddie Sotello. Known to his listeners nationwide as “Piolín” (with 3 million more daily listeners than Rush Limbaugh) Sotello’s show, blog, and Facebook page have become powerful platforms to inspire, motivate, and inform others via well-reasoned and literate expositions to his Hispanic audience on the challenges and essence (read democratic philosophy, law, and policy)on living in America and being an American.

Even the venerated New York Times could only dream of such a reach (and profitable one too). Pretensions of most main street press aside, a serious argument can be made that Sotello is doing more each day with a growing national audience to advance the goals of American democracy than any newspaper.

The really weighty question for Jeff Light is not what will the U-T look like tomorrow, but what is the U-T’s trajectory in 10 years when the demographic, political, and generational make-up of San Diego will be so very different from what it is today?

Rich Dittbenner, J. D.
Director of Public Information and Government Relations
San Diego Community College District


Frank Gormlie August 28, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Hey Jeff Light: your sidebar background color really makes it difficult to read those ‘shorts’ or teasers.


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