The San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board counts among its members a couple of people we know, like and admire; our editor usually has a grand time batting important issues back and forth with Ruben Navarrette Jr. and Chris Reed on KPBS' Editors Roundtable radio program. But as a collective entity, the editorial board, led by editorial page editor Bob Kittle, is a no-class operation.
Case in point: Last week, voiceofsandiego.org reporter Will Carless and co-executive editor Andy Donohue broke a pretty big story and an important follow-up. Their investigation revealed that the two top staffers at the Southeastern Economic Development Corporation (SEDC), an arm of the city's Redevelopment Agency, took more than a quarter of a million dollars in "financial acknowledgements" between 2003 and 2007, without the knowledge of the City Council (which serves as the Redevelopment Agency) and the SEDC's own board of directors. The extra payments appear to have been hidden in a vague budget item and were discovered by voice through an examination of tax documents.
Furthermore, voice reported that Chip Owen, the guy who sets SEDC staff pay, has a financial relationship with a developer involved in a messy dispute over who gets to build on land controlled by the SEDC. The implication is that the developer, Pacific Development Partners, has the capacity to influence top staff decision-making through Owen's salary-setting position. The appearance of conflict is enough to prompt changes in the way the agency operates.The story grabbed the attention of several members of the City Council and Mayor Jerry Sanders, who fired off a memo to SEDC demanding information about the taxpayer-funded pay.
Well, along came the U-T editorial board on Friday, praising Sanders in a published editorial (what's new?) and indignantly criticizing the City Council for failing to adequately supervise SEDC.
But not a single word about voiceofsandiego.org, whose hard work is the only reason the U-T, Sanders, the City Council and CityBeat are even aware of the extra payments.
CityBeat's general policy is to credit other media when commenting or following up on stories we wouldn't be aware of if not for someone else's investigative work. It's just the right thing to do. (In fact, it's voice's own Scott Lewis' commentary that inspired this editorial.) Local television and radio stations are infamous for reporting other people's work and making it seem like their own. The U-T's editorial is a form of misinformation because it gives the impression that Sanders' letter to SEDC was the first shot across the bow. Ironically, it's the U-T's reporters who have for years been the ones pilfered by TV and radio in San Diego-so the paper's editorial writers should be better than that.
We get the sense that the U-T views giving credit where credit is due as a sign of weakness. There have been a few exceptions-an investigation by CityBeat was once credited by U-T reporter Matt Hall; we appreciated that-but it seems like the U-T tries to give the impression that it's the only newsgathering organization in town. In fact, as occasionally noted by voice reporter Rob Davis, the U-T's in a downward spiral of decreasing circulation, reduced ad revenue, dwindling page count and a forced staff exodus-all while publisher David Copley cavorts around on his yacht and donates millions of dollars to university theater costume shops.
If anything, the U-T's penetration in the local market has waned. Unfortunately, you wouldn't know that by watching San Diego's elected officials scramble to respond whenever the U-T's editorial board strings a few words together. Listening to these pols, you'd think every man, woman, child and pet marmot in San Diego County reads the local daily. It's just not the case. The mayor and the City Council are allowing the U-T editorial board to exert much more influence than is merited-especially when you consider that the paper's politics swings to the right of the general public (at least that's what we think). On that note, we sincerely hope that Sanders' new spokesperson, Darren Pudgil, refrains from using the U-T's editorial board (and Kittle in particular) as a de facto arm of the mayor's communications/political apparatus, as Pudgil's predecessor, Fred Sainz, did.
In just the six years of CityBeat's existence, the local media market has changed dramatically-thanks in part to voice's fine, nimble online journalism-and it's way past time for the U-T to get over itself. And it's way past time for local officials to react to the daily newspaper's diminished role in the community.
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