Bartender Steve Menzel easily sees between 75 and 300 customers daily during his eight-hour shifts at Larry’s Beach Club. Menzel has been a bartender at the restaurant/bar on Oceanside Boulevard west of Coast Highway for the last 35 of its 70 years.
Keeping up on local news and gossip is part of Menzel’s job. To help him keep abreast, he religiously read the hometown Blade-Citizen and its successor the North County Times.
But Menzel will tell anyone who asks what he thinks about the October 2012 “merger” when Union-Tribune owner Doug Manchester snuffed out the North County Times and transferred its subscribers to the Union-Tribune.
“I haven’t read a newspaper since they closed down the North County Times,” says Menzel. “They tried to bring in a newspaper from San Diego here to North County but I have no interest in what is happening in San Diego. They say they have a local section about North County, but as far as I’m concerned, the local newspaper left me. I took [the Union-Tribune] for maybe a week but then I cancelled it. What they were trying to sell me is terrible. To be honest I haven’t read a newspaper since it went away. It’s sad.”
North County was once awash in newsprint. Until 1989, Vista residents, for example, had newsstand and daily delivery access to seven different newspapers.
One local sportswriter who was around in the ‘80s but did not want to be identified recalled: “When I was working for the [Escondido] Times-Advocate I would go to a Vista High softball game and you would also see reporters from the Vista Press, the [Oceanside] Blade-Citizen, the [San Diego] Union, the [San Diego] Evening Tribune, and the San Diego Edition of L. A. Times. Keep in mind this was softball, not baseball.”
The sports reporter maintains that was a kind of golden era for local press. “Even if you looked at the L.A. market, I don’t think there was that much coverage for local prep sports anywhere as there was in North County during that time.”
He recalls a time when reporters hustled for news and sports stories. “Back then there was competition. You cared if you got scooped by another local paper. Sure, the San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune were the big gorillas, but you could scoop them on a big story. People cared about beating the other guy, but it was fun. Now you go to a sports event and no one competes against anybody. Often no one in the media shows up to cover games.”
But while the modern lack of covering local prep sports may be a quaint regret, the decrease in local coverage of local city governments could have more serious impacts says former Blade-Citizen publisher Tom Missett. “It seems like the main purpose of the U-T now is to scam people who way overpay for obituaries,” says Missett. “It’s unconscionable.”
The inland Times Advocate and coastal Blade-Citizen merged in 1995 to form the North County Times. Those papers employed “three dot” columnists like Brian Cook, Tom Morrow, and Jeff Frank to cover community events and local trivia. The Blade-Citizen and later the North County Times even had its own political cartoonist, Mark Thornhill. And until the mid-90s, the dailies that covered North County usually had one reporter per city. Reporter Phil Diehl’s beat used to be the city of Oceanside when he worked for the Blade-Citizen. Now his beat for the U-T includes Solana Beach, Del Mar, Carlsbad and Oceanside.
While the North County Times no longer exists, the Union-Tribune employed the well-respected editor-turned columnist Logan Jenkins. His thrice weekly column covered North County for some 20 of the 22 years he wrote the column. Jenkins’s last column was in January. Insiders at the U-T say there will not be a North County-centric columnist replacing Jenkins going forward.
Missett was brought to Oceanside to run Oceanside’s Blade-Tribune in 1967. He stayed with the paper for almost 30 years as it morphed into the Blade-Citizen (covering Oceanside to Del Mar) and then into the North County Times (covering all of North County). He says he knows plenty of other people who feel the same way as bartender Menzel.
Missett, who once employed reporter Diehl, says he respect’s Diehl’s talent and professionalism. But that by stretching out newsroom resources, the U-T is dumbing down its product. “They are trying to save themselves into prosperity. But what is happening is they are not giving people the news they need. The Blade-Tribune and Blade-Citizen built success on local news, sports, crime reporting, and local events. When you have one person doing the work of four, you end up turning out an inferior product.”
In 1997 when the North County Times was created, Missett says the the Times-Advocate had about 60,000 subscribers and the Blade-Citizen had 50,000. “We figured out that if you take out the Union-Tribune’s rack and bulk sales at hospitals, their circulation for the whole county now is actually under 100,000. That means the two North County papers, when combined, had more subscribers than the U-T does now for the whole county.”
The former Times-Advocate sports reporter says that the U-T’s coverage of local sports, “…used to be three or four pages. Now it’s like a page or a page-and-a-half.” He says thanks to the input of the U-T’s eight weekly papers like the La Jolla Light, Del Mar Times and Poway News-Chieftain, many local sports items from those papers eventually do make it to the U-T.
“But the biggest change to the U-T’s sports coverage is that because of our new deadlines, this is the first year they won’t even try to get the results of Friday night football into the Saturday paper.”
The sports scribe says the 80s was a kind of golden age of North County journalism. “The Times-Advocate was owned by the Chicago Tribune. That was a big deal to me. The T-A had a sense of superiority. The Blade-Citizen was more scrappy, more rough around the edges. But their coverage of sports was excellent. No one embraced the local teams like [Blade-Citizen sports editor] Steve Scofield. I just heard last week he needs a triple bypass.”
He thinks it’s a shame the U-T doesn’t give North County the specialized attention it once got. “Even with all the changes, North County has its own style of politics, housing and lifestyle. I thought Logan [Jenkins] was great. We miss him horribly. He was North County’s well-thought-out voice.”
Union-Tribune publisher Jeff Light did not respond to emailed questions about his paper’s circulation or its commitment to North County. It was reported that at the end of 2017 the U-T had an average daily circulation of 121,321.