Though locals would be none the wiser, the Union-Tribune may soon be stripped of its best longtime talents, signaling to worried insiders that the hometown daily could be on the precipice of being subsumed into the Los Angeles Times, also owned by biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.
The most recently announced departure is that of U-T director of photography John R. McCutcheon, who after three decades in San Diego has been named deputy editor for Project Management and Transformation at the Times. McCutcheon got his latest U-T photo credit on a shot of San Diego city council candidate Tommy Hough that ran September 27.
"John joined the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1988 and has worked as a photojournalist, picture editor, assignment editor and, currently, as the Director of Photography. He is firmly convinced that covering San Diego is the best job on the planet," says McCutchen's online U-T profile.
But the U-T, losing readership and advertising, has not been treated as favorably by Soon-Shiong, who is said to view the San Diego outlet as an outlying bureau and potential talent reservoir to be raided for his flagship L.A. Times. Thus, chronic staff and page count shrinkages here have drawn skeptical eyes.
"I can't keep up with the @latimes announcements this week," wrote the paper's chief transformation editor Kris Viesselman, herself a former U-T managing editor, in an October 4 tweet heralding McCutcheon's move.
"Thrilled to welcome multi-talented @johnrmccutchen (transformation) and highly experienced @sliss33 (digital) to our team!" (Seth Liss formerly worked for previous Times owner tronc in Los Angeles.)
While the U-T has languished in L.A.'s shadow, Soon-Shiong has boasted of pouring $100 million of new cash into the Times, following his $500 million purchase of the operation, along with the U-T and a group of weeklies from star-crossed tronc in June.
"I overpaid,” the Los Angeles physician told an October 2 media conference in Beverly Hills. “It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t the business. It was, 'Do we want this paper to exist or not?'”
Per an account by Poynter.org, Soon-Shiong has "approved a hiring spree in the L.A. Times' Washington bureau, the reopening of its Seoul bureau and the opening of its Singapore bureau, and the addition of new deputy managing editor Sewell Chan and the paper's new transformation editor, Kris Viesselman."
So far, though, little or none of the big-money largesse has trickled down to San Diego. Based on its daily PDF online version, the U-T's Friday, October 5 page count dropped to 55 from 64 a year ago, with traditionally lucrative full-page Friday advertisers including Fry's Electronics and North County Ford dealer Ken Grody no longer present.
Though the fortunes of the U-T have fallen, Soon-Shiong is looking to grab control of a raft of other California newspapers, backing a bid by McClatchy Co., owner of the Sacramento Bee, to take over tronc, the New York Post reported September 25.
"If a deal with McClatchy comes to fruition, then Soon-Shiong could potentially end up as chairman of a combined Tronc/McClatchy," the account said, adding that McClatchy’s biggest papers, the Miami Herald and the Kansas City Star, along with Sacramento Bee and the Modesto Bee "would be attractive additions to Soon-Shiong’s other California holdings."
With Soon-Shiong's plans in the wind, as of October 4 tronc has changed its much-maligned name, bestowed over two years ago by then-chairman Mike Ferro, back to Tribune Publishing.