Impact of U-T Layoffs on San Diego
Friday, August 14, 2009
The San Diego Union-Tribune announced 112 jobs are being cut from the newspaper. As part of the downsizing, the paper laid off one of its most polarizing figures, long-time Editorial Page Editor Bob Kittle.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, we’ll have some opinions on what the layoffs at the San Diego Union-Tribune signaled, the continued wrangling over a power shutdown in east county, and money worries for firefighters just as the wildfire season gets ready to roar. The editors with me today are Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Scott, you have another title, too, don’t you? Opinion editor?
SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, voiceofsandiego.org): No, no, no. I’m just CEO now.
PENNER: Okay, well, just as okay.
PENNER: Kent Davy is with us. He’s editor of the North County Times. That’s simple and correct…
KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): There you go.
DAVY: Good morning.
PENNER: And Tom York, editor of the San Diego Business Journal. Welcome back, Tom.
TOM YORK (Editor, San Diego Business Journal): Thank you for having me again.
PENNER: Our call in number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, it’s happened again. More layoffs at the Union-Tribune, about 112 this time added to the 192 let go in May right after Platinum Equity bought San Diego’s major daily. That’s more than 300 staffers swept out as the paper either gets ready to expire or to reinvent itself to survive the current unhealthy climate. So, Scott Lewis, perhaps the best known name on Wednesday’s hit list was, or is, editorial page editor Bob Kittle, who was a frequent guest on this program. How does that indicate the new owner’s plans for the Union-Tribune?
LEWIS: Well, I think we’re all interested to see. Bob was a – was the face of the paper. He was the one who made the speeches. He was the one that came on shows like this. He was the, you know, in place of a popular and charismatic editor or a popular and charismatic publisher, Bob Kittle served as the – as ‘the’ Union-Tribune’s person in the community, the ambassador for the paper. If you add that to the loss of Herb Klein a month or two ago, if you add that to…
PENNER: Well, let’s clarify. Herb Klein wasn’t laid off. He died.
PENNER: Yes, at the…
LEWIS: I didn’t – I didn’t mean to imply…
PENNER: …age of ninety…
LEWIS: …he got laid off.
PENNER: …ninety-four or ninety-five, I think. Something…
LEWIS: Yeah, he was obviously a figurehead for the community and the newspaper for a long time and was still very active up until he passed. And you add that to the new owners to many of the authoritative voices in the paper that have left and you see a San Diego institution and San Diego itself has completely changed. I mean, this is a – this is a major shift, and we’re all going to be interested to see how this institution changes now and what voices emerge. Is the editor going to take a more high profile? Is somebody else going to rise in – in Kittle’s stead.
PENNER: You mean the current editor, Karin Winner.
PENNER: I see.
LEWIS: Yeah, she’s, you know, well known as somebody who doesn’t like the spotlight, doesn’t like to talk in public. Does that mean that somebody like Chris Reed in the editorial section rises up? Does it mean somebody like Ricky Young, the upstarting government editor, who's on this show every once in awhile, does that mean he takes a higher profile? Does it mean that the publisher himself takes a higher profile? Who knows? There’s just going to be a lot of interesting changes and – and, you know, Bob was one of the most, you know, I had famous – or, interesting exchanges with him at times but he was one of the most articulate people that the paper could put out there but it was an opinion voice, somebody that came from a certain perspective and that – and the city is now going to be witnessing something different happen, I think.
PENNER: Well, as you can tell, our listeners are getting an earful from Scott Lewis from voiceofsandiego.org having to do with recent layoffs at the Union-Tribune and what that means for the newspaper and what it means for San Diego. If you would like to give us your opinion on these recent layoffs and your feelings about the San Diego Union-Tribune, long known as San Diego’s major daily, we’d love to hear from you at 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, Kent Davy, you’re an editor of the North County Times, which is also a daily.
PENNER: Yes. And – But, you know, it is – it tends to serve areas outside the city of San Diego.
DAVY: Yeah, we're – our paper does – our footprint, our self-definition isn’t – does not include the city of San Diego per se. We do cover county. The – I think the interesting things from the point of view of a newsroom professional that I saw in Ed Moss—Ed Moss is the current publisher of the Union-Tribune—is in his – or in the press release where the statements that the company intended to move towards micro-zoning, that it intended to emphasize the local news commitment, that it had new ideas for both local editorial products as well as web-based products. Now what the content of that means or what – where those things are, how they ultimately play out, I don’t know. I’m fascinated to listen and watch because those are the kind of lang – those are the kinds of things that we, up in north county, have traditionally talked about.
PENNER: What does micro-zoning mean?
DAVY: Well, it could mean a number of things. One of the things it could mean is directing news content either at, say, city unit or even conceivably zip code unit. Now whether – But whether that is a news coverage impulse or it's an advertising impulse or both, I think remains to be seen. It's also possible that it means that inserting of products that target specific zones that you deliver to, say just the Encinitas market.
PENNER: Can you give me just an example. It can be a mythological example, you know. I just want to know what you're talking about.
DAVY: Okay. If you were running a large metropolitan paper and you wanted to target readers in Encinitas, what you might do is say, okay, two times a week, three times a week, we're going to insert a six page Encinitas special. That would be micro-zoning. Or we're going to inset – we're going to insert a specific advertising directed at Encinitas readers. That would be an example of mico-zoning.
PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727. We're talking about the latest changes at the San Diego Union-Tribune. And the announcement that the – the editorial effort on the part of the newspaper is to drive more local news coverage to targeted areas and I think that's – that's one of the things that Kent Davy is talking about. And I'm just wondering when you do something like that, and let me turn to you, Tom York, you're the editor of the San Diego Business Journal so you can look at it from more of a business perspective. When you start targeting smaller areas, does that mean that you can actually target smaller businesses and advertise at a reduced rate and maybe bring in more ads than the Union-Tribune obviously is now getting. I mean, everybody's noticed how thin the paper's become.
YORK: Well, I think that's the target, is to, you know, go into a neighborhood perhaps like Hillcrest or North Park and target the businesses that are in those neighborhoods. The challenge there is to do this complicated micro-zoning or targeting and still make a profit because a lot of these businesses in these communities don't have the kinds of dollars that a national advertiser might have, like a national chain store. So, you know, I don't – I'm not quite sure what this all means. You know, I'd have to look at it. I've worked myself on daily newspapers that have done this. It's quite complicated. It requires a lot of staffing and a lot of planning and this all remains to be seen and it remains all to be played out.
LEWIS: And I think it's important, too, to note that, you know, we – they lost Kittle but they also said goodbye to a number of other voices that were really interesting. Bernie Jones, the longtime editor of the op-eds and I guess he had switched to letters after that. But he was well known as a sort of really balanced, fair collector of opinions in the community. There was Rick Rogers, who covers the military. Is the U-T going to pull back from its coverage of the military or reemphasize it some other way? I mean, the military's kind of a big deal around here.
PENNER: And what about the police reporter? The police reporter is gone, too.
LEWIS: Well, there was David Hasemyer…
LEWIS: …one of the most experienced, strong investigative reporters in the county. He's gone. There's a – there's just a tremendous shift going on here and I think that, you know, the publisher said that – the publisher could've laid off anybody in the community and he chose Kittle, he chose these other peoples – these other people, and he could've made other decisions. He also announced that he was going to sort of raise the pay and benefits of the people who were higher performers so it's a very interesting decision going on at one of the region's largest businesses. This was the – this was a business that is now about 40% smaller than it was just in the last couple of years.
PENNER: Right, and I'll throw out that question that you kind of imply there, Scott Lewis, and that is are you still taking the Union-Tribune? And is it serving you well? And do you want to see it changed? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Let's take a call now from Paul in Del Mar. Paul, you're on with the editors.
PAUL (Caller, Del Mar): Oh, thank you for taking my call. You know, it's kind of funny. Kittle, of course, was part of your show for a long time but, to me, he was the ultimate caricature of – he was just silly. And it was – He's just like David Copley. He's like out of "Peewee's Playhouse" or something. It was like somebody created him and – and I just think he tried so hard to say look at me, I'm a conservative. But what I was going to ask your panel there is Kent Davy has not announced that he put his Oceanside plant and his printing presses up for sale. Any comment on that?
PENNER: Yes, he's shaking his head vigorously. Thank you, Paul. Go ahead, Kent.
DAVY: That's not true, in the first place. We did put it in the paper. We signed a, or my boss signed a listing agreement, I think, on Monday. It was in the paper on Tuesday. And I want to make sure that you know and the listeners know that that is not a signal that we are leaving Oceanside. What it means is that we are doing all of our press runs off of the Escondido printing plant. We have two printing plants. And that the cost of running two printing plants didn't make any sense for us anymore. This allows us to move into smaller office space inside Oceanside but we're not leaving.
PENNER: Okay, well, Tom, obviously the whole face of newspapering, as we know it, is changing in San Diego. I mean, there are many who say that the current business model simply doesn't work because the advertisers aren't there. Do you think that we are, in San Diego, seeing the slipping away of print newspapers?
YORK: No. I think that newspapers will always be with us, at least for the foreseeable future but I think that especially daily newspapers will be a smaller, more targeted product than what we're seeing now. I wanted to go back and just cover one thing, is that there's a lot of talk here about personalities at the newspaper and I think for the average reader, and I would include myself in that since I didn't know Mr. Kittle that well, the average reader is only concerned about what's happening in my neighborhood, what's happening in, you know, my area. And I think the – the, you know, the Union-Tribune is going to have to respond to that requirement. The news has to cover – it has to be more about news and not about personalities and if they work towards that regards then I think that they'll be successful.
LEWIS: Well, you could make that argument that…
PENNER: That's Scott Lewis talking. Now go ahead, Scott.
LEWIS: You can make the argument that, yeah, you shouldn't maybe have faces at the paper but let's be clear here. Bob Kittle led the U-T into certain directions and helped articulate some of their most passionate stances in the sense of, for instance, it could be argued that two years ago when the city – or three years ago when the city and the county voted on the new airport proposal, to put the airport up at Miramar with the joint use of Miramar, that was driven by the Union-Tribune and by their editorials. The downtown library project is driven by their editorials and by their – by even the contributions of a former publisher.
PENNER: Okay, Scott, but I want to – I want to make clear, it was my understanding that one person did not make this decision.
LEWIS: Oh, no, of course.
PENNER: That this is made by the editorial board meeting together…
LEWIS: Of course.
PENNER: …coming to consensus, and that Bob Kittle carried out the wishes of the editorial board.
LEWIS: Yeah, but he was quite clearly the charismatic sort of leader of that group and his views certainly weren't something that they ignored. And, you know, he did provoke a lot of response just like that caller did because he had a certain style and a certain – he did – the caller used the word 'caricature' but it had a condescending sort of establishment tone to it at times that provoked quite a response. And that's kind of what we're watching fall out. This is a big deal for especially the establishment of San Diego.
PENNER: Well, we're – we're going to return in a moment and continue this discussion of the future of the Union-Tribune and the future of the newspapers in San Diego and what best serves our community in just a moment, and I'm going to take your calls when we return. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner. And we'll be back in a moment.
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PENNER: Well, you just heard our announcer saying wake up to Morning Edition on – in the mornings, of course, and a lot of people wake up to their morning newspaper and grab it and take it inside and that seems to be a tradition in many families. And we're just wondering if that tradition will continue or are we going to see big changes in the newspaper world in San Diego. That's what we're talking about with the latest news that the San Diego Union-Tribune continues its layoffs and now has just laid off over a hundred more people this week. So we're taking your calls on this and our number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 895-KPBS. Let's hear from Ernest in Hillcrest. Ernest – Wait a minute, I forgot to – Please, I forgot to reintroduce my guests. Let me let everybody know that Scott Lewis is here this morning. He's with voiceofsandiego.org. And also Tom York with the San Diego Business Journal, and from the North County Times, we have Kent Davy. And now we have Ernest in Hillcrest. Hi, Ernest.
ERNEST (Caller, Hillcrest): Hi. How are you?
ERNEST: Yeah, I'm interested in getting your guests and you to speculate on whether or not you think this might represent an ideological shift in the paper's editorial opinion that a lot of people thought might happen once the Copleys sold. The Copley Press was almost a standard of kind of the establishment Republican thinking in San Diego that went on for so many years, so many decades, and even though the city itself has voted Democratic quite consistently in the last 20 years, and even the county was very supportive, for example, in the last election of Barack Obama. So I'm curious if they think maybe that's what's coming down the road.
PENNER: Okay, let's find out. We'll start with Kent Davy. What do you think, Kent?
DAVY: I think that there is some great likelihood that that will happen. It depends on who emeges to run the editorial board and what direction it's taken. You know, Scott earlier mentioned that Chris Reed might be there, might ascend, well, Chris is a, from my – I would describe Chris as a pretty hard libertarian. That isn't going to move the paper terribly far to the left, maybe on some social issues. But I do think that this represents a real opportunity for this paper to realign itself with its readership much more.
PENNER: What do you think, Tom York? Do you think that we're going to see an editorial shift? Does your paper have an editorial bias?
YORK: Well, only in my bias when I write a Notebook. We tend not to write editorials simply because we feel that it's – you know, that I'm not – you know, it's just something we don't do. My feeling is, once again, is that I – obviously, with the departure of the, you know, the face of the paper, things are going to change there. But once again, I think the average reader is more concerned about what's happening in my neighborhood and whether that news is being covered. If a neighbor hears – or a homeowner hears a sound of a fire truck or a police car, they want to find out what happened the next day in their newspaper. That's really the function of a newspaper.
PENNER: So does that mean—Let me just ask Tom this—does that mean, Tom, from your point of view, they're going to hire – have to hire more reporters?
YORK: Well, I think they're going to have to put the emphasis on covering news. And while the opinion page is important, and I know that I've got two people here who are very much into their opinions, I still think that the, you know, the unbiased news coverage is the heart and soul of any newspaper and that's where the emphasis has to be put.
PENNER: And Scott Lewis.
LEWIS: Well, I think it's important to note who they didn't lay off. They didn't lay off Bill Osborne, who not a lot of people understood whether his job was quite that different from Bob Kittle's job.
PENNER: I think Bob Kittle reported to Bill Osborne.
LEWIS: So – But they still had, you know, there were two very powerful personalities there and Bill Osborne is hardly a liberal and he's hardly even – he's probably even a little more conservative on some issues than Kittle is and so this is – that doesn't indicate a dramatic difference. Chris Reed, if he does take a more prominent position is, like he said, libertarian but he's not as establishment-centric as Kittle was, not old-style San Diego-centric. And, look, opinions do matter in the sense that Kittle also broke a lot of news on that paper – on that page. He would always surprise the news staff down the hall that, you know, when he came out with scoop about the city. The city used him in a lot of ways. A lot of people used him in a lot of ways to get their message out. And I think he would fully admit that he was a very powerful person when the city or politicians or others wanted to get a certain perspective out and this – that's going to change. And so whether or not it's a good change or a bad change, it's a change.
PENNER: Kent, I'm torn. I want you to have your say but I also want to hear from Michael in Pacific Beach. But we'll do Kent first then Michael.
DAVY: Very briefly, and that is that one of the signals that Moss gave in the press release yest – the press release about this layoff…
PENNER: And Moss is the new publisher.
DAVY: …is – is the new publisher. Is that there would be more local news, shorter stories, which is a signal perhaps that instead of writing longer pieces, the reporters that are left are going to be said – are going to be asked to write a two-for-one to generate more coverage that gets you more places.
PENNER: I see. Almost like a mini – mini-stories or – or Tweets on the paper.
DAVY: Depends on how long they are but…
PENNER: Okay. Michael, it's your turn. Michael in Pacific Beach.
MICHAEL (Caller, Pacific Beach): Thank you, everyone. Yeah, I used to be a subscriber of the Union-Tribune and about six months ago I switched to the LA Times and I think that – I did that because it doesn't – the Union-Tribune isn't very balanced in their viewpoints and I think that if they – they could keep some of those jobs if they'd balance their editorial board a little bit more. And a good example of that is, Gloria, you, last week, you – I think it was either early this week or last week, you had a discussion on healthcare and you had a gentleman on your panel that was very opposed to that and it was a very productive discussion because your heard both sides. And that's just – that's what's missing with the Union-Tribune. And it's just – I think there's a large market out there that just doesn't agree with having such an unbalanced newspaper.
PENNER: Okay. Thank you very much. We appreciate your phone call, Michael, and your thoughts. Scott Lewis.
LEWIS: I think it's a false canard to say that newspapers are failing right now because people don't like their editorial stances or their news coverage. The fact is, is that more people are reading news from newspapers, whether it's online or whatnot than they ever have before. This gentleman might've unsubscribed but I – I think that Kittle obviously turned a lot of people off and the other people did, too, but he also brought a lot of people onboard and I think that the reason, well, let's be just clear, the reason that newspapers are failing or falling apart in – or just realigning themselves is because advertisers used to put ads in there for ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars. They've – they're using that money in different ways now whether it's online or whether it's through other marketing means. And that's it. There's – They've just found a lot of different ways, a lot more effective ways, in many instances, to get their message to people they want to get it to and they can track it better.
LEWIS: And that's what's happened to newspapers. That's just the fundamental issue. We're going to have to pay for our newspapers. My argument would be the U-T should just say the newspaper now costs two bucks, it now costs three bucks and, you know, they're going to lose a lot of subscribers and a lot of circulation but they might gain some of the money back.
PENNER: Okay. Thank you. Maybe somebody from the U-T administrative staff is listening and will take what you have to say and your advice to heart, Scott. Tom, did you want to weigh in on this?
YORK: Well, I just wanted to say that the LA Times is to progressive politics as the Union-Tribune is to regressive politics so I think that – They're – they're actually, if you read both of those papers, you'll get a really balanced point of view as far as the political aspects of life are concerned.
PENNER: Okay. Thank you. And now Linda in Encinitas is with us. Linda, you're on with the editors.
LINDA (Caller, Encinitas): Hi, Gloria. Thanks.
PENNER: You're welcome.
LINDA: And hello to your board. I've got a comment that is sort of following on a few of the comments that have been made. And that is that I think a newspaper like the U-T should reflect the face of the community fairly – in a fairly balanced way, and I think that San Diego is changing and Southern California is changing to a more liberal face. And one of your callers had said there wasn't much balance and, to me, the face of San Diego needs to be reflected more articulately in a newspaper that represents it and I just wondered if your board would have any comments on that. And I appreciate it.
PENNER: Well, what I'm going to do is I'm going to get their final comments, Linda, and perhaps they will respond to you in their final comments as well. And thank you very much for your call. Final comments, Kent Davy.
DAVY: First, I want to – I would remind people that the editorial page, the op-ed page and the letters of a paper tend not to be the same as the rest of the news coverage. The bulk of what a newsroom does hasn't got anything to do with the opinion other than providing facts that can be turned into opinions. Most papers put a wall up between the editorial board and the newsroom just to keep those two places separate.
PENNER: That's a reason this is called the Editors Roundtable, because we solicit your opinions and we hope you have the right facts behind them. But that's really the whole thrust here. Okay, final – I have a specific question for you, Tom York. So when the company bought the Union-Tribune, that's Platinum Equity, bought the Union-Tribune and it's property in Mission Valley and La Jolla, it was widely speculated that the paper would be shut down and that this valuable property would be sold at a significant profit. Are there any signs that this is the path that Platinum Equity is going to take?
YORK: Well, as a business editor and one who covers business, that – that speculation never made much sense to me because we're in the midst of one of the most severe downturns for commercial real estate that we've seen in decades and it's going to get worse. So why would a company buy a property – buy a product for its property and then sell it into the worst market that's ever existed? I think that the problem with journalists is, is that they're very poor at math so they go into something involving English and then they're going to speculate about something that involves, you know, mathematics and…
LEWIS: Well, as one of the speculators, I wasn't saying – nobody was saying that they were going to sell the property.
LEWIS: They just found it a good investment in that property, and that the price that they paid for the paper was for that property and for very little in addition. And then just…
LEWIS: I wanted to make a quick question – point. I got a Tweet just now from somebody that said that…
PENNER: Are you – are you looking at your text while we're on the air?
LEWIS: I just heard it.
PENNER: Oh, okay.
LEWIS: The – the – And it said, well, the circulation of the paper's going down so it can't all be advertising. Look, the circulation of the subscription print-based paper is going down but, again, the readership to the papers, to all papers, is going up through the internet. People are just not using this paper anymore. They're just not using – and I just, for the people who aren't in the room, I just shift the paper in my hand, but the – they're just not using that medium to get their information and, therefore, the people who advertise in it aren't using it as much.
PENNER: Okay, Kent.
DAVY: And, in fact, much of the property that the Union-Tribune owned has, in fact, been put up for sale.
PENNER: It has?
LEWIS: Exactly, yes.
PENNER: Okay. Well, with that, we are going to thank the editors for that very interesting discussion and we're going to move on.