Monday, December 10, 2007

Farewell San Diego Union-Tribune...a shadow of its former self...

From Voice of San Diego:

The Union Tribune's Gutting
By Seth Hettena

Monday, Dec. 10, 2007 | Ever since it exposed former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham as a bribe-taker and won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Service, bad things keep happening to The San Diego Union-Tribune. A year ago, 19 senior newsroom employees were bought out. Already this year, the company has gutted its Washington bureau, and Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer, two reporters singled out by the Pulitzer judges, have decided to leave by year’s end. But the worst was yet to come.

On Dec. 3, employees in Union-Tribune were summoned into meetings (features reporters were told it was to discuss a "new initiative") and handed a memo outlining 43 editorial positions slated for elimination by year’s end. The buyout list included 15 reporters, a half-dozen editors, three columnists, three critics, two photographers and so on. Employees who weren’t on the list were invited to place their own jobs on the chopping block.

Seth Hettena
Only a few areas were spared. There were no cuts to the newspaper’s website,, or the breaking news team of reporters who write for it. Also off limits is the newspaper’s Spanish-language edition, Enlace, as well as the free North County edition put out by Copley Press with the imaginative title of Today’s Local News. The newspaper is also saving its computer-assisted reporting team, the geeks who crunch big government databases and help generate stories popular with journalism judges.

The mood in the Union-Tribune’s newsroom on the third floor of its Mission Valley headquarters is funereal. I heard a couple of old hands say it feels like the end of something, more so than even the 1992 merger of the morning Union and the Evening Tribune. There is a widespread fear that the Union-Tribune will be an even thinner and weaker newspaper in 2008 when at least 12 percent of its newsroom will have been bought out.

Two days after the buyouts were announced a list made its way around the newsroom with the names of 42 people said to be considering the offer. Several U-T reporters told me Kelly Thornton was among them.

Thornton, who has been on maternity leave, is a fiercely competitive reporter with excellent sources in San Diego’s law enforcement community. She produced a string of unmatched scoops following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. More recently, she broke the news that U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, whose office had been investigating members of Congress, had been fired for reasons that remain unclear.

Another potential loss is Susan White, an editor. She is less well known but her departure would be an even bigger blow. White is a passionate, hard-working editor in charge of the enterprise team and also edits other stories that find their way onto the front page. She cares about every word and makes her reporters re-write their copy multiple times, which drives them crazy. Being reporters, they groan and moan, but they go along with it because the final product is much, much improved and White will fight to get a story into the paper. One veteran described her as the heart of the newsroom.

White told me she was still deciding what to do. She and others have until 5 p.m. on Dec. 12 to make it final.

What’s clear is the Union-Tribune, like so many other newspapers, seems to have entered what has now become a familiar tailspin. Faced with declining circulation and slumping ad revenues, newspapers cut, slash and eliminate and then cut some more, and the result is the ever-shrinking newspaper. The Internet is overtaking the newspaper, so everything is shifted there, while the paper is gutted.

Too often, the Union-Tribune’s front page is filled with wire copy and the business section fits on a single full broadsheet. How, exactly, will this bring newspaper subscribers back? The only ones left soon will be coupon clippers and fans of the comics and crossword puzzles.

None of the reporters I spoke with seemed surprised by the buyouts. Painful as these cuts are, it’s still preferable to the fate of newsrooms in publicly-traded companies that make wholesale layoffs or sell each other newspapers like trading cards. The Union-Tribune is in private hands, so there are no shareholders screaming for more, more, more. And the reporters know what’s happening in the industry. Given the direction of things, the company’s executives would be crazy not to do something.

BIA Financial Network of Virginia, which calculates sales figures for media outlets across America, estimated that the Union-Tribune had revenues in 2006 of $386.74 million. To put that in perspective, the newspaper takes in more revenue than all the television stations in San Diego combined. However, and it’s a big however, circulation is plummeting, and so are ad sales, which account for three-quarters of all revenue at the Union-Tribune. The paper sold $292.95 million worth of ads in 2006, the same level as three years ago, according to BIA Financial. This year is likely to be worse, and the Union-Tribune is just trying to hang on.

So are the reporters who aren’t taking the buyout. One reporter told me he’s feeling like the guy with the push broom at the end of the parade, and he shared with me an e-mail he wrote to friends after the buyouts were announced:

But now the newspaper business model is eroding, with much of the advertising revenue moving to the Internet or drying up with the consolidation of you name it: department stores, auto dealers, car makers. A newspaper could have F. Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Mailer on their staff, but what difference would it make if the business doesn't generate enough revenue to support them? What difference does it make if people don't want to read anything longer than what fits on the screen of their cell phone?

Ten or 15 years ago, I would return to San Diego after reading newspapers in Denver, St. Louis or Pittsburgh and conclude that the Union-Tribune looked good in comparison. It's been a strong regional newspaper, probably as good as I deserved. Every newspaper in America has its own peculiar legacy of sacred cows and self-serving practices. The Union-Tribune was gradually shedding its conservative legacy and compromised politics, and becoming more insightful and critical. It was just getting better -- or at least it was until the industry downturn forced these cutbacks.

So now journalism is becoming subject to the Internet's "long tail" like everything else. It's more democratic, but also unvetted, unedited and so cacophonic that most of it just seems like so much background noise. You can have a blog, but anybody can have a blog. How do you build a mass audience big enough to earn a living?

And where does it leave the journeyman journalists like me?

Where indeed?

Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, writes an occasional column "The Peanut Gallery" about local media and journalism. You can e-mail him at with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.


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