L.A. Times leaves San Diego

San Diego County edition was launching pad to other papers, including other Times bureaus

Former Times media writer, now Channel 51 reporter Kevin Brass interviews a Times reporter the day of the announcement.
  • Former Times media writer, now Channel 51 reporter Kevin Brass interviews a Times reporter the day of the announcement.
  • Image by Byron Pepper

L.A. Times San Diego edition general manager Phyllis Pfeiffer in happier times

L.A. Times San Diego edition general manager Phyllis Pfeiffer in happier times

Times Mirror executives last week announced that the San Diego County edition of the Los Angeles Times will cease to exist December 18.

Rumors of the San Diego edition’s demise have been circulating almost from the day the re-plate was born 14 years ago with a core editorial staff of 15 reporters and photographers. It was ushered in by a San Diego Magazine spread by Harold Keen in which he quoted the Times’ then-Metro editor, Mark Murphy, as saying, “The Times is image-conscious and proud, and we’re determined not to fail. We’ll be here as long as it takes to have a successful operation.”

Pfeiffer after the announcement last Friday

Pfeiffer after the announcement last Friday

Before the San Diego edition was launched, the Times had 27,615 daily subscribers in the county. More than 10,000 subscribers were added that very first month, but after that, circulation grew much slower than expected, sources say. The latest figures, for the year ending March 31, put daily circulation at 61,653. That’s up just a fraction from the year ending March 31, 1990, when daily readership stood at 60,095. (Circulation peaked at 65,000 in 1988, according to a recent report in the New York Times.)

The San Diego Union-Tribune, by contrast, posted a daily circulation of 373,453 as of September 30. That implies the U-T has picked up most of the Union and Tribune's respective pre-merger reader-ships, which as of September 30, 1991, totaled 386,026 (273,472 for the Union and 112,554 for the Tribune). The Times had expected to get a large chunk of ex-Tribune readers, sources say.

San Diego edition stories on the Bill Kolender ticket-fixing and the Pete Wilson free rent

San Diego edition stories on the Bill Kolender ticket-fixing and the Pete Wilson free rent

One Times writer says he sensed the end was near last August, shortly after political writer Leonard Bernstein left to become an assistant city editor at the Orange County edition. “We were still under a hiring freeze, but we thought we were going to be able to replace him because he was going to Orange County and they were going to send us a voucher to hire someone else,” the writer says. “Then they announced they weren’t. That was the first real inclination that something was going on.”

Last month, insiders say. Times San Diego edition chief Dale Fetherling was told by his higher-ups in Los Angeles to prepare for even more drastic budget cuts and to come up with some options to a complete closure. Fetherling did not return repeated phone calls, but a source says he met with city editor Armando Acuna and deputy editor Karen Kline and the troika came up with the idea for a broadsheet insert that would be called “The Times Within The Times” — known around the newsroom as “The Twit."

But in the last three weeks, sources say, that last valiant attempt at salvaging the San Diego operation was vetoed by Times publisher David Laventhol, and the decision was made to pull out completely.

The Times on a number of occasions scooped the Copley duo, despite being understaffed and under-financed. Times reporters weren't afraid to tackle Copley sacred cows like Pete Wilson and take them to task when they deserved it.

And while their peers at Copley were often spoon-fed assignments, reporters like Miles Corwin, Ralph Frammolino, Rick Paddock. Glenn Bunting, and Rick Serrano did their own digging.

The local edition was not flawless. From time to time, the cards were turned, and it was the Union or the Tribune that did the scooping. The Times was a day late in reporting the 1985 drug arrest of San Diego Charger Mike Green. That same year, the paper virtually ignored secret interviews conducted by the city council in its search for a new city manager. And, more recently, the Times reportedly had an early tip about Susan Bray’s $100,000 payoff from the city but neglected to follow up on it.

Still, the Times usually offered a higher journalistic standard. “We were a very close-knit group, and very competitive,” recalls Rick Paddock, who worked at the local edition of the Times from 1978 to 1982 and is currently based in San Francisco as a staff writer for the main edition. “We felt like we were the underdogs because we were certainly outnumbered, but we had high-quality people who not only broke a lot of but looked for innovative ways to tell the news," he says. “We found things nobody else was finding and the Union and Tribune were not interested in finding. And that made them change their approach to the news and made them start really covering the city. We were a real small staff, hut on a good day, we really shook things up.”

Here are some of the Times’ scoops:

• During then-San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson’s 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate, a tip led reporter Rick Paddock to Wilson’s financial disclosure statements. And that, in turn, led him to discover that for a 19-month period, San Diego’s favorite son had been living, rent-free, in a pair of condominiums owned by attorney Kevin Monaghan and developer Donald Cohn’s Hillcrest Development Company. Paddock’s story appeared in the August 27, 1982, issue of the Times, along with Wilson’s assertion that everything was on the up-and-up. The resultant brouhaha made headlines throughout the state.

Even the Tribune picked up on the story and.for once, gave credit to the source. “Wilson was quoted in today’s edition of the Los Angles Times as saying he could not afford to rent his own apartment after his separation from his wife and that Monaghan and Cohn were merely helping him out as friends."

• A day after the abrupt resignation of fire chief Earle Roberts, the city council questioned city manager Ray Blair in a closed session about the extent of his personal relationship with Sue Williams, a deputy city manager, and whether that had anything to do with the chief's departure.

The Times’ Ralph Frammolino found sources who leaked him the story. He wrote about it the next day, February 15, 1984: “Blair was asked directly three times Tuesday whether he was having an affair with Williams.... The questions were prompted, sources say, because Roberts told at least two council members Monday that he felt helpless to appeal to Blair what he felt were unwise management recommendations made by Williams."

The San Diego Union’s Michael Smolens, on the other hand, wrote a front-page story about Blair nominating a new fire chief to replace Roberts, tossing in an aside about how the city council had "held two closed-door sessions...to grill Blair on his management style." It wasn’t until the following morning that Smolens reported what had actually gone on during those “closed-door sessions” in a story that was essentially a rewrite of Frammolino’s story.

• The San Diego Union had the scoop on the city’s biggest ticket-fixing scandal first but didn’t know it. On November 7, 1986, a front-page Union story by Jim Okerbloom told how "San Diego officials have begun cracking down on parking ticket procedures because of fears the city is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from citations that are dismissed or plea-bargained away.... Police officials also acknowledged that a handful of the tickets dismissed involved family members or friends of high-ranking members of the department, but they maintain those dismissals were for legitimate reasons."

Two days later, the Times published a story by reporter Glenn F. Bunting that must have infuriated the would-be sleuths at the Union: “A month-long investigation by the Times revealed that the Police Department routinely violates its own policies by dismissing thousands of tickets for flimsy or fabricated excuses or none at all.... The Police Department has dismissed tickets for Police Chief Bill Kolender’s wife and son, Asst. Police Chief Bob Burgreen’s daughter and some of Kolender’s friends, among them KSDO sportscaster Ron Reina.”

Two days after the Times story, the Union followed up on Bunting’s revelations, noting that Kolender admitted “he dismissed parking tickets, carrying fines of up to $17, for his wife and friends. ‘I shouldn’t have done it,’ he said tersely...”

• For years, the San Diego Union had been looking for ways to topple Sheriff John Duffy. But when the good sheriff ultimately did take a fall, it was from a kick in the keister by the Times’ Rick Serrano.

In a story that ran November 29, 1989, Serrano quoted four law-enforcement sources as saying that Duffy required deputies from the Poway sheriff’s station to respond to all emergency calls at his new Scripps Ranch home, “even though the San Diego Police Department provides law-enforcement services in that area.”

Duffy the next day obtained a restraining order from a Superior Court judge that temporarily prevented the Times from printing a follow-up story detailing the elaborate security system at the Scripps Ranch house.

The Union merely played the role of bystander, running a story on December 1 about the sheriff’s legal maneuvering and his response to Serrano’s attempt to write about Duffy’s house: “Duffy said he obtained the court order because any article detailing the security system in his house was a ‘personal threat to the safety of myself, and, more importantly, my wife.’” The Union story went on to give a synopsis of the original Times piece, saying it “quoted a number of anonymous sources.”

• A year ago last March, reporter Leonard Bernstein shook up city hall when he announced that Mayor Maureen O’Connor, who had been leading the cry for a voluntary water conservation program in drought-stricken San Diego, was actually one of the city’s top 100 residential water users.

“O’Connor released the corrected water-use figures after the Times inquired about a second water meter operating from a separate billing address at her two-acre residence,” Bernstein wrote. “In the past, she and the city have released water-use statistics from only one of her water meters.”

Two days later, the San Diego Union published a watered-down follow-up, explaining how the paper had been scooped. Noting that the Union had requested water-usage information from O’Connor the previous summer, reporter Pat Flynn wrote, “The Union did not specify addresses but asked for total water usage at each council member’s residence. {Mayoral spokesman Paul] Downey said O’Connor herself did not know she had two water meters until recent media inquiries were made. The mayor's office released the correct statistics Friday to the Los Angeles Times, which published them on Sunday.”

• Though based in Sacramento, former San Diego County edition reporter Ralph Frammolino continued to sniff out stories pertaining to San Diego. In October of 1991 he broke the results of one such investigation: “Mix-ups in the medical lab at Alvarado Hospital in San Diego resulted in two seriously flawed blood transfusions since 1989, including one in which an elderly man died hours after receiving a large dose of incompatible red blood cells, according to a confidential state file obtained by the Times."

• “In a suicide scene that rocked the austere San Diego federal court, a 53-year-old Pacific Beach man swallowed cyanide pills seconds after he heard a jury convict him Wednesday of drug crimes that would have landed him behind bars for at least 25 years.” So went the lead to Alan Abraham’s front-page story last December 5.

The Union-Tribune, having missed the story, tried bravely to put a different spin on the tale the following morning: “A dramatic suicide in a San Diego federal courtroom this week is a sharp reminder that not all the instruments of death can be intercepted at the courthouse entrance, officials conceded yesterday.”

The San Diego County edition has also been a successful launching pad — or stopping-off point — for reporters on their way up. Tamara jones, who interned at the Times its very first summer here, is the paper’s foreign correspondent in Germany. Reporter Marjorie Miller is foreign correspondent in Mexico City.

Business writer Bill Ritter went on to a career in television and has just been tapped as the new Sunday host for Good Morning America. Another business writer, Anthony Ramirez, now works for the New York Times. Reporter Paul Nussbaum is deputy foreign editor with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Investigative reporter Glenn Bunting and medical writer Ed Chen are with the Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau. Chen has also written a book. Cheating Death, about an insurance scam in Glendale involving a staged death and a real corpse.

Ex-San Diego staffers who have gone on to the Times’ Sacramento bureau include city hall reporter Paddock; intern-cum-reporter Dan Weintraub, whose coverage of the state budget crisis got him lots of attention earlier this year; medical/science writer Paul Jacobs, who is considered an expert on the state legislature; and investigative reporter Ralph Frammolino, who broke the Ray Blair/Sue Williams city hall love affair story and covered fallen financier J. David Dominelli’s flight to Montserrat in 1984.

Many San Diego edition staffers ultimately wound up in Los Angeles, working for the main metropolitan edition. Rick Serrano, the reporter who uncovered former Sheriff John Duffy’s elaborate home security arrangements, writes about police and covered the Rodney King beating case. He was just named Journalist of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists' Los Angeles chapter. Police reporter Bob Welkos is writing about the movie business for the “Calendar” section. Baseball writer Bill Plaschke covers the Dodgers. Laurie Becklund, a charter reporter with the San Diego edition who covered the border, is a general assignment reporter and recently wrote a book with her sister about the Nike athletic shoe empire. Court writer Jim Schachter is an assistant business editor. And David Freed was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize for his investigations into the Los Angeles criminal justice system.

At least one career ended in tragedy. Nancy Skelton covered white supremacist Tom Metzger’s 1980 congressional campaign. She was one of the first members of the local press corps to provide in-depth coverage of San Diego’s gay community. She later moved up to the Los Angeles edition and covered Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid. In December 1985 she committed suicide.

(Arnold was a free-lance writer for the Times until 1990.)

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