Jeff Light started his new job just days after John Gardner was charged. Photo by David Rolland.
When the Easter Sunday earthquake rocked Southern California and Northern Mexico, The San Diego Union-Tribune's new editor, Jeff Light, was in Laguna Beach, where his 5-year-old daughter is still in school.
Light, whose previous job was vice president of interactive for the Orange County Register, turned to the web. The larger regional news sites were loading slowly or not at all, including the U-T's SignonSanDiego.com.
“So, I went to Twitter to find out what was going on. I first went to my account because I follow the U-T,” Light says, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I saw it wasn't there.”
It was a full 70 minutes before Union-Tribune reporters began updating the Twitter feed—and even then, it was only a link to a few facts that the national media had already reported.
That shortfall was addressed first thing the next morning, Light tells CityBeat in face-to-face interview later that day.
Light is a 49-year-old prone to almost campy arm gestures and using “like” in the middle of sentences. A brand new Apple iPad is propped up on his desk (though he confesses to disliking Macs), and his office whiteboard is filled with flow charts and pyramids illustrating how information reaches the public.
About a month ago, Light replaced long-time editor Karin Winner at what the Audit Bureau of Circulation names the 24th largest newspaper in the country. Having spent the previous year focusing on business models and how “advertising and news work together,” Light acknowledges that he's a little rusty when it comes to journalism.
The first time he was led into the newsroom, he tells CityBeat, the staff hammered him with questions.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God! I haven't thought about these journalism questions in, like, a year,' so it was refreshing,” he says. “They wanted to know stuff like, ‘What should we do about comments on stories?' and ‘What about journalism that takes a long time to do?' and ‘Can we move the news meeting to 7 a.m.?' It was just, like, they were all good questions.”
Among the immediate changes Light made was launching an internal office blog. That's where he announced his first major decision as editor: A media campaign to investigate how sex offenders are managed in California.
“Literally, I didn't even know the people's names, let alone how does it work and how are we organized or even how to find the bathroom,” he says.
The Chelsea King story broke, and registered sex offender John Gardner was charged with her murder days before Light started work. He announced the paper would run a “Call to Action” editorial on the front page and the news room would be reorganized to cover the story.
“I'd like to see real outcomes, real action from our work,” he wrote in the blog post. “I think when we have extraordinary stories, we need extraordinary solutions. This will mean deploying your staff differently, using your space differently, breaking convention. I believe the daily well-considered editorial is not sufficient for this task.”
An initial eight newsroom staffers were plucked from other beats to cover the story. The editorial board was assigned to empanel stakeholders for in-depth research.
“These newspaper editorial boards are just churning out these editorials every day,” Light says. “‘This thing? Here's the answer! Two a day!' So, I didn't want to do that.”
The move, Light says, represents a new direction for the editorial board.
“Advocacy here used to mean promoting the world view of the Copleys,” Light tells CityBeat via e-mail, referencing the paper's previous owners, who sold it to Platinum Equity last year. “We have some sorting out to do, because that's not what it is going to mean going forward.”
On the news side, four reporters and a data specialist are on the sex-offender story, led by government editor Ricky Young, who worked with Light previously at the Register. In recent weeks, the focus has turned to investigating the parole process that put Gardner back on the street, relying heavily on statistics.
Some of the reporting has been flawed, and the Union-Tribune has corrected headlines and descriptions of statistics after CityBeat pointed them out.
“Having these errors and mistakes, that's super-bad,” Light says. “That's not what we're trying for, but… I didn't see that these were symptoms of sloppy data analysis.”
One of the more problematic stories published by the Union-Tribune relied on third-hand information about Gardner's mental-health evaluations provided by victim advocate Marc Klaas. Light defends his decision to run the story despite a lack of corroboration. He's confident the public will eventually learn that Klaas' description of events is “pretty damned good” as Gardner's case goes to trial.
“In plain terms, I do believe [Klaas' claim],” Light says. “If I thought it was really dubious, it wouldn't be in the paper. If I thought it was dubious at all, it wouldn't be in the lead position on the front page.”
Light's previous paper took fire in September 2009, when a sports columnist wrote a piece outlining the sporting events sexual-abuse victim Jaycee Dugard missed while allegedly imprisoned in a sex-offender's backyard for 18 years. The sports-blog Deadspin deemed it the “the single worst piece of journalism ever committed on this page,” and MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann condemned the paper's editors by name during his Countdown program.
Light calls the piece a “dumb column” and stresses that he believes his reporters are reporting responsibly.
“We don't want to appear in any way to be trying to exploit [Chelsea King's family] or these tragedies,” Light says. “That's the thing we've got to be careful about.”
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