May 13 2015 10:49 AM

Doug Manchester to drop pompoms, sell U-T San Diego

Presses keep rolling.
Photo from Newspaper Club / Flickr

The city's self-appointed head cheerleader is ready to hang up his pompoms. Developer-cum-newspaper-publisher Doug Manchester is ready to sell off U-T San Diego. After a three-year run, the uber-conservative circus big tent appears to be coming down. This should be a measured sigh of relief for anyone who respects, treasures and still might hope a major metropolitan paper/website can disseminate untainted and properly delineated news and opinion.   

Tribune Publishing Co., as its corporate moniker suggests, is a professional publishing organization. The Chicago-based company has made an $85 million offer to Manchester to buy the U-T, minus the Mission Valley property where the reporters work. 

Let's separate Manchester's desire to develop that land from the likely prospect that a credible news management team is preparing to take the reins.

The negative knee-jerk reaction to Tribune's takeover comes because the company runs the Los Angeles Times. (Tribune also owns The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and a total of 10 major daily newspapers. After Gannett and McClatchy, Tribune is the third-largest print publisher in the country.)

The (newly renamed?) U-T will share management with the Los Angeles Times. It would be a disaster if current Times publisher Austin Beutner, who will also take that title in the U-T masthead, decides to make San Diego the farm team for L.A. 

Beutner says he won't do that, and that the San Diego office will maintain (attain?) editorial oversight. 

Fine. We'll see how that plays out. The best-case scenario for San Diego stewardship of mainstream journalism would not have been the arrival of a mega-corporation. But compare any downsides brought by Tribune to the current state of affairs. 

Recall that before he even began practicing publishing, Manchester drew ire—and a boycott of his hotel properties—for donating $125,000 to 2008's "Yes on 8" campaign, which successfully passed Proposition 8 and banned same-sex marriage (at the time) in California.

It was just a little more than three years ago when Manchester and then-partner John Lynch bought the newspaper. They promptly put a new tagline under the logo on A1: "The World's Greatest Country & America's Finest City." CityBeat's Dave Maass summed up the banality of that slogan in December 2011: "...the U-T is now the galaxy's corniest daily newspaper."  

Things went from corny to (journalistically speaking) criminally conservative.

You'd hope a publishing executive would check his personal baggage at the door to the newsroom. But almost immediately, Manchester and Lynch began to unabashedly announce how they planned to use their bully pulpit to champion conservative causes.

Lynch stated that he wanted the paper to be "pro-business," and the sports pages should be advocates for a new downtown football stadium. Lynch said he wanted writers to call out those who didn't support a new stadium as "obstructionists."

Across the nation, journalists cringed when Lynch stated: "We'd like to be a cheerleader for all that's good about San Diego." Hip, hip... huh?

Tim Sullivan is a talented former sportswriter for the U-T who strongly believes in the church/state separate between newspaper owners (who can opine on the editorial page) and writers (who present fact, or fact-based opinion). Sullivan says one reason he was let go was that he was not "on board" with ownership's stadium politics. (Read Sullivan's amazing letter on this subject here)

Editorials that favored Manchester/Lynch pet projects began to show up on the front pages of the U-T. As did political endorsements of Republican political candidates, namely Congressional candidate Carl DeMaio. Any smattering of journalistic credibility the paper still held was effectively neutered.

It would be naïve to believe Tribune Company newsrooms around the country are devoid of in-house politics. Many call the Los Angeles Times a bastion of the left. But when you look at any red-flag labels that might apply to Times publisher Beutner, like investment banker or former politician, one descriptor not on the list is cheerleader.

Stay cautious and guarded about the future of mainstream media in San Diego. But realize forward progress was never going to occur until the cheerleaders left the field and some professional players took over.

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