Unrestrained boosterism and biased reporting in U-T’s future?

Critics slam Tribune Publishing's move to hand commercial reins to editors

U-T editor Jeff Light
  • U-T editor Jeff Light
  • (photo illustration)

As cheerleading continues for a new tax-subsidized downtown stadium to house the Chargers, the Chicago ownership of the San Diego Union-Tribune is being hit by pundits who assert that the company's latest business strategy is setting its newspapers up for conflict-of-interest debacles and ultimate financial collapse.

Provoking the controversy was last week's announcement that the new management at Tribune Publishing was dispensing with the publishers at all of its papers and turning over their duties — involving operating the business and stimulating ad sales — to its editors, including San Diego's Jeff Light.

Ken Doctor

Ken Doctor

Wrote media blogger Ken Doctor, “What do we make of the editor-publisher strategy? On a business level — and that’s where the money is generated, right — it is bewildering. Neither Davan Maharaj (The Times’ editor-publisher) nor Bruce Dold (Chicago Tribune), for instance, have any business-side experience. Neither do most, if not all, of those named 'publishers.'”

Blogged former L.A. Times scribe Tim Rutten, "Putting aside the issues of complexity in modern newspaper operations, no one I’ve ever known has the required expertise to run both a business side and a newsroom — let alone the time and energy to do justice to both roles."

He continued, "Moreover, the separation of newspapers’ business and editorial operations was undertaken after long experience not for purely ethical reasons, but also for pragmatic ones. If both operations are centered in one office, editorial independence inevitably will be compromised and the detriment of the journalism’s quality and, therefore, its salability to readers and advertisers."

Added Rutten, "At the Times, the top editorial and business jobs last were united in the 19th Century, when Harrison Gray Otis simultaneously held the posts of president, general manager and editor-in-chief. We all know how well that worked out, as he turned the paper into an unashamed megaphone for unrestrained boosterism, biased reporting and violently reactionary politics. By the time Otis died in 1917, the Times generally was regarded as the worst newspaper in the country."

His conclusion: "This latest goofy, history-defying, let’s-try-anything move reeks of desperation. In fact, it is just the latest example of Tribune’s nearly unbroken record of failing to meet its responsibilities to the Times’ readers and their community."

Not to worry — the U-T’s editor Light was quoted as saying in a March 2 story announcing his new dual role.

“The job is the same," Light proclaimed. "To serve the community with integrity. My own principles as a journalist and a businessperson — as well as our company’s code of conduct — are crystal clear on that topic.”

Nathan Fletcher

Nathan Fletcher

The piece discreetly failed to mention Light's most notable ethical dust-up with local politicos, when he was recorded by mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher during an editorial board meeting in May 2012 dissing Fletcher's abandonment of the Republican party to become an independent.

“If it was just their editorial page people, that’s one thing,” Point Loma Nazarene University professor Dean Nelson told public TV station KPBS after the incident.

“But this is the person who oversees all of their news coverage. So that’s why I found this particularly disturbing.”

According to the KPBS account, Light later posted a justification of his remarks on Facebook.

"I was just trying to ask Nathan to make a clearer case for the endorsement he was asking for by pointing out, hey, this is a Republican group you are pitching to. There's really no more to it than that."

The ethics jungle faced by Light may grow yet more complicated as debate grows over public sponsorship of a new downtown home for the Chargers.

Union-Tribune coverage of the putative stadium, to be financed by city taxpayers, has been heavily relying on the Mighty 1090, a Mexico-licensed sports radio station operating just south of the border.

A February 18 U-T story quoting remarks on Mighty 1090 by ex-Democratic state senator Steve Peace favoring the downtown venue noted that Peace worked for John Moores and that the radio station itself was owned by Moores, a key downtown property owner.

That was before the Chargers announced they favored the downtown scheme over Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer's choice of Mission Valley.

A March 9 U-T news story and accompanying sports column based on an interview given Mighty 1090 by Jerry Sanders, in which the ex-mayor and chamber of commerce honcho appeared to be leaning in favor of the downtown project, didn't mention Moores’s radio-station ownership.

Meanwhile, the U-T is currently advertising for someone to oversee writing of so-called "sponsored" news stories at the paper.

"If you believe that every company has a story to tell and can do so in an informative and educational way for readers, consider a position as an Advertising Content Strategist," says a U-T job notice posted on Tribune Publishing's website.

"You would be responsible for organizing, assigning and editing sponsored content while acting as a liaison between sales reps, campaign coordinators, clients and writers."

Adds the notice, "An ability to generate compelling story ideas is a plus. Even though this job is in advertising, a strong knowledge of journalism and ethics is required."

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It is all rather frightening. I wonder what would be said about the position of "Advertising Content Strategist" in Journalism schools? A way to get your foot in the door? A necessary evil? A way to attract the much-needed advertising dollar?

You just write a news-ish story about Bette's Dress Shoppe and then put the word ("advertisement") in parentheses at the top or the bottom and lo, there is your "advertising content." It gets labeled. Readers will be able to discern the difference. It's tacky, but it's not the end of the world. It diminishes the gravitas of actual reporting, but these ARE desperate times, so I'm not complaining as we go slip sliding away.

Lifestyle magazines and some newspapers have been doing advertorials for decades. Usually they are paid advertisements (designated as you stated), but other times they are regular articles in the editorial sections (as a "reward" for buying lots of ad space). The latter type is unethical.

Unethical or not, the fanciest local magazine, San Diego Magazine, did just that for decades. Buy full page ads for twelve monthly issues, and you got a cover story that was highly flattering. Oddly enough, the mag also had some real journalism of a hard-hitting sort, notably by Harold Keene, that revealed some not-very-flattering things about local nabobs. It was a real contrast at times, but since it catered to the La Jolla crowd and a few other pockets of affluence, never got broad coverage or acceptance.

The sole purpose of similar magazines (in all major cities) is mainly to sell ads, through gloss and boosterism. I found that out when I worked at Palm Springs Life magazine (until I had enough and resigned). It was (and still is) a magazine factory.

The U-T has always been a biased newspaper. While a few staff wrote great articles (don comes to mind) most were at the mercy of the editors who danced to the tune of the owner. I do not know of a single newspaper that reports the news without bias. I think the U-T is toast. Manchester got out when the getting was good.

Manchester made out like a bandit, by keeping the U-T property. That's where the real money was.

Dougie always seemed an odd person to buy the paper, despite his hunger for publicity and wanting to get his word out. My take was that he was just doing a real estate deal that happened to have some collateral assets, one being the paper. So, he got to massage his ego for a couple years as the publisher of the local rag, then unloaded it while keeping what he really wanted (and got for a depressed price), the Mission Valley property.

Doug also did a whole lot of horn-tooting via the U-T for his controversial Manchester Pacific Gateway project. It looks like those efforts paid off.

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