With the San Diego Union-Tribune soon to come under the thumb of British Columbia newspaper kingpin David Black, U-T staffers and readers are no doubt anxious to know what they can expect from their new Canadian overlord.
If Black's handling of other papers he's taken over is any indication, what's in store for the U-T will probably be a mixed bag. Expect more staff cuts and operational rollbacks. But also look for an increased emphasis on all things local.
U-T parent company Copley Press on March 18 announced plans to sell the paper to Platinum Equity, a Beverly Hills-based private equity firm whose holdings include mostly technology and manufacturing firms. Among Platinum's partners in the sale is Black, owner of the 150-plus newspaper chain Black Press, who the equity firm says will help it “navigate the newspaper market.”
But what, exactly, will that mean for the U-T? Most probably it means it may undergo the same upheavals as happened at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Akron Beacon Journal, two foundering papers Black scooped up and made slimmer and more profitable.
Founded in 1882 and Hawaii's second-largest paper, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin was on its deathbed when Black purchased it from Liberty Newspapers in 2001. He wrangled wage concessions from the Star-Bulletin's union, and the paper performed fairly well for several years until the recent recession hit. Last month, the paper announced it was laying off 17 of its 92 staffers and converting from a broadsheet to a tabloid.
The 106-year-old Akron Beacon Journal was also on the brink when Black Press bought it from the McClatchy Co. in August 2006. Black immediately cut loose 25 percent of the newsroom staff—the first of several staff reductions, the most recent in August. The paper is in better financial shape today than before Black arrived, but at a cost, says Beacon Journal staffer and union head Bob DeMay.
“We're struggling to get through the day,” DeMay tells CityBeat. “There aren't enough people to get it done—we make a lot of sacrifices.”
It could be worse. While much slimmer, the Beacon Journal is still kicking, unlike the daily King County Journal in Kent, Wash., which Black bought in November 2005 and shut down in January 2006.
Another potential fate that may await the U-T is a reduced firewall between the newsroom and the advertising department. Black found himself with a scandal on his hands in 2007, when Black Press executives sided with a local advertiser who complained that a story in the Black Press-owned Victoria News was bad for business. The executives reportedly told the employees that journalists and editors shouldn't jeopardize ad revenue with their news coverage, leading media watchdogs to question the paper's credibility.
Whether the incident was an isolated event isn't known, though Jake Lynch, editor of the Black Press-owned Issaquah / Sammamish Reporter says management has never interfered with his newsroom.
“The only person I really answer to is the publisher,” Lynch says. “I don't get any direction from above in terms of compromising stories.”
A bright spot in all this for fans of homegrown stories is Black Press' emphasis on community news. By all accounts, David Black loves local news—most of his newspaper empire is made up of community newspapers. When he shuttered the King County Journal, he notably hung on to—indeed, increased the budgets for—the Journal's nine community sister papers.
“One good thing, reading between the lines, about the U-T sale is the core of Black's operation has been community journalism,” says Tim Wulfemeyer, a professor at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. “Certainly, we can use more of that kind of commitment and attention being paid to San Diego County.”