Monday, April 19, 2010
What are the top priorities for the new editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune? We speak to Jeff Light about his background, and his goals for the paper.
U-T taps O.C. newspaper exec as new editor -- San Diego Union Tribune
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In the past two years, The San Diego Union-Tribune has been through a lot of changes. Owned by the Copley family for 80 years, the paper was sold to the Beverly Hills investment firm Platinum Equity last May. In the months following the sale, more than 300 staff members were laid off. All of these changes, of course, occurred in the midst of the ‘great recession’ during a period of fundamental change for the news industry. So it seems fair to say the San Diego Union-Tribune's new editor has his work cut out for him. Jeff Light has been on the job since February of this year. And, Jeff, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to These Days.
JEFF LIGHT (Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What changes have you noticed at the U-T and what changes would you like to see? Give us a call with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Jeff, your most recent job before you came here was with the Orange County Register. So what did you do there?
LIGHT: At the Register, I worked there for 15 years in many roles. My last one was the vice president for interactive, running the internet business for the Register and also for – they had a role in the Freedom Communications corporate interactive business as well.
CAVANAUGH: Now you say that the U-T has to look toward a web first model. What does that mean?
LIGHT: Hmm. Well, I mean, we’re talking about a little bit the change in the media landscape. So newspaper companies like the U-T, traditionally the big media player in town, have an opportunity and a challenge and our, I guess, business strategy as well as our journalist – journalism strategy is to work across more than one platform, right. So we have print, we have interactive, we have mobile, the iPad is coming out. We have radio and television hosted on our site. So these are all facets of a multi-platform approach. Within that world, there’s sort of an order of work that you need to keep in mind and because the interactive space is real time, that’s where we need to learn to begin. So that’s a little bit of an adjustment for newspapers and something we’ll be working on.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Now, you – I’m wondering, you were at the Orange County Register and you heard what was going on in San Diego with the sale of the paper and so forth, what interested you in applying for the editor position here in San Diego? What about the U-T is intriguing to you?
LIGHT: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm. Oh, a bunch of things. One, I would say, I spent a long time on the content side before working on the business side, which was a fascinating and eye-opening experience for me. But this is still a content driven business. The heart of all of these media businesses is the ability to attract an audience. So part of what I wanted to do was really work at the core of what was going on. So that’s the first part of the opportunity. There was coincidental things. I know the person who runs interactive at the U-T and I – he’s a good friend of mine and so I trust him, so I didn’t feel the requirement that I needed to do that as well because there’s a good partnership there. And finally the ownership is attractive to me because they’re interested – they’re not newspaper people by background. They’re business people who are interested and have faith in a local media business model that works. So that’s something that I’m interested in trying to design, and so it was a good marriage for me.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jeff Light. He is the vice president and editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. He’s been working in that position since February. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I just want to ask a question based on your answer there. I know that you have said that you’ve been working, you’re comfortable working with business models and developing that kind of strategy for the paper. How comfortable are you in the newsroom?
LIGHT: I feel pretty comfortable although when I began this job—I actually started in March, not February—it was a bracing moment because I was walking down halls that I hadn’t really been in in a couple of years. So I feel pretty comfortable but you – maybe we should ask some of the people who are there at the U-T and they can give you their read.
CAVANAUGH: I read that you were grilled pretty stringently by some of the people in the newsroom. What did they ask you?
LIGHT: Well, they asked me all sorts of things. When I first met them, they had questions about what did an interactive newsroom look like? What would become of long form journalism? What we should do about reader comments? What was the future of the company? I mean, they had all the questions you would have for a new editor, I think.
CAVANAUGH: And did you have answers for them?
LIGHT: Well, I did my best. It was a fun moment for me because in my last job, really – This job is about building a team. It’s a big group and the newsroom is a – really a creative community, a collaborative, creative community. So you’ve got these, you know, scores and scores of people working together on a daily basis to divine what’s going on, to sort through it, and to create something. In my last job, it was much more working to understand the different players in the media space, coming up with the proper financial models and strategies, working with the publishers of different properties within Freedom and many internal stakeholders in a conversation and a debate about where the company should go, so much more abstracted.
LIGHT: So it was fantastic to like walk into that newsroom on the third floor and face all those curious minds and that good questioning, it was terrific. I’m having a lot of fun.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jeff Light. We’re welcoming your calls, 1-888-895-5727. And, Jeff, a lot of people want to get in on the conversation so let’s take a few phone calls right now. Mel’s calling us from Hillcrest. Good morning, Mel, and welcome to These Days.
MEL (Caller, Hillcrest): Morning. Thank you. I have one suggestion. I don’t know how you’ll take it but I would like the paper to get rid of editorials. That would give you more room for news and, besides, that, the editorials have serious conflict of interest because they represent the publisher whose interest is in making money out of the paper and the editorials are always in favor of more development and against unions. So do us a favor, just dump the editorials.
CAVANAUGH: Mel, thanks for the call. Let’s take another call. Sunny’s calling also from Hillcrest. Good morning, Sunny. Welcome to These Days.
SUNNY (Caller, Hillcrest): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I’m afraid my comments are rather negative. I’ve lived in San Diego all my life and have read the San Diego Union, the San Diego Tribune, and I’m very, very disappointed in the quality of presentation. Somebody doesn’t have Spellcheck because the word dog was spelled d-o-g-e in a recent article. The city Chula Vista is not hyphenated between the ‘ch’ and the ‘ula’. I’m sure there’s typesetting, about which I know zero. I’m just asking that you put quality back in your newspaper. And I’ll take – I’ll listen off the air. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let me give you a chance to respond to the comments we’ve heard so far, Jeff.
LIGHT: Yeah, I’ll talk about both of those. Quality obviously is important and I think perhaps a little bit of what we’re seeing is, as you reference, there’s been a abrupt and disruptive downsizing to the operation over the last year, I guess, and that has impacts. So one of the things that we’re trying to do here over the next several months is sort through the kind of organization that we want to have, figure out where best to apply our resources, and bring a sense of planfulness and order back into the newsroom. Now, that’s not saying there won’t be typos or mistakes. Some of those mistakes actually sound like the kind of things that are introduced by typesetting processes because the particular nature of those kinds of errors sound like machine-driven errors but it’s immaterial. I mean, we need to fix those things and we will. Editorials, I think, is a very interesting question, a little bit more difficult to get at. It’s a philosophical question. I think that traditionally – Well, I would also say if you looked around America, probably the editorials that you would see would reflect the kind of publisher-local businessman perspective that the caller mentioned. However, I would say that’s not necessarily universal, so I don’t think it’s a given that an editorial board will be pro-business or anti-union or any of those things. I think the most interesting question is what is the proper role of an editorial board? What is the proper process? In my mind, I’d like to see more of a protocol, a technique, an effort to understand how issues are playing out in the community, who the different stakeholders are and what their values are, and how those things fit together as a community tries to reach a consensus or a conclusion on a debate. So that’s a little bit different than some guy like me or the publisher or the editorial board director having an opinion and being able to skillfully and swiftly rattle off what everybody should think about everything. That doesn’t really feel exactly right to me.
CAVANAUGH: Well, the Union-Tribune has long been known as a conservative paper. Do you expect that to continue?
LIGHT: I’m not sure 100% what I expect on the editorial board. What I’d like to do is take a little time to sort through that issue. And I don’t think, in spite of – Well, the process that I’m describing, it would not be one of simply, you know, wetting your finger and putting it in the air to see which way the wind blows because I do think that there is an important and valuable leadership role that could contribute value to the community, it really could help. So I just think that there’s a balance to be reached between truly understanding issues and how they seem to many groups of people than prioritizing the facts and the values according to a hierarchy of ideas that would stand for here’s what the Union-Tribune is for.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think you’re there yet?
LIGHT: No, I think what we’re doing now is a continuation of a process that had begun under the Copleys under which the paper was the instrument to promote the things that the owners thought were good for the community or were the best ideas, which I think is – was appropriate, right, that was the role. After the sale to Platinum, the current owners have, you know, no particular interest one way or another in how we run our editorial board or how we run the content side of the business. So that group, like the rest of the newsroom impacted by downsizing, are simply good journalists doing the best they can and continuing on in a thoughtful way. But I think part of the framework is missing there and I think that needs to be rethought.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Jeff Light. He is vice president and editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. And we’re taking your calls. Our phone board is lighting up like crazy. If you’d like to go online and post your comments, please feel free to do so, that’s KPBS.org/thesedays. Let’s take a break, and when we return, we’ll continue the conversation and continue taking your calls. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. And my guest is Jeff Light. He is vice president and editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, as I said, Jeff, we have a lot of phone calls but I do want to get in this question, if I may. The stories of the murders of teenagers Amber Dubois and Chelsea King and, of course, last Friday’s guilty plea by John Gardner, that’s about the biggest story in San Diego since you’ve been editor of the paper. How would you assess the paper’s coverage of that story?
LIGHT: Yeah, I think we’ve done a good job with that story. The – I mean, this was a, as you say, just a shocking series of events throughout and, I think, has revealed some interesting debate about the criminal justice end of how things are being handled. So I feel like that’s a story that has really been an important story for the whole state.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, I know that part of the coverage of the U-T was to try to get in on how people are sent through parole and how sex offenders are handled, and there was some criticism about errors in the way the U-T handled those stories. What is your reaction to that criticism?
LIGHT: Yeah, I think there was an – there was a correction that we ran on one story but I would say that idea that the coverage was flawed or that there were some sort of fundamental errors is incorrect.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let’s take a call. Ju is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Ju. Welcome to These Days.
JU (Caller, San Diego): Oh, hi. It’s interesting to hear Jeff mentioning earlier that he feels the San Diego Union-Tribune should have a web first model. And my question is considering that we already have other online media like San Diego News Network and Voice of San Diego, how would the U-T distinguish itself in covering San Diego news also with, you know, the web first model comparing to traditional print media before?
LIGHT: Umm-hmm. That…
JU: Thank you.
LIGHT: Yeah, that’s a terrific question. There are a number of players which, I think, is a good thing for everybody. The particular ones that you’re talking about, I would say – Well, first, let me talk about the U-T. The U-T is the big established legacy media brand and as such it is trying to cover, in a broad way, the key – Let me think what I would say. The real areas of influence and importance in the community. So, you know, our mission as a big media company really is improved communities through information, right. And then to do that, we’re going to focus in on the intelligence and creativity and accomplishment of our community, on those key topics that really make San Diego work, the critical areas, and also to be a guardian of the public trust. So that’s a pretty broad mandate. Now when you look at San—excuse me for just a second—San Diego News Network, that is a, I would say, a lighter weight news organization that has a small staff that’s trying to engage a layer of enthusiasts and advocates to write for them to aggregate news and to be sort of a local news aggregator, right. Voice of San Diego is sort of at the other end of the spectrum, very focused, very narrow audience in an area of special expertise, local politics. So I could talk for awhile about how these three things fit together but I don’t see them necessarily as duplicative.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, but the smaller organizations are sort of tweaking San Diego – Sign on San Diego in certain areas of coverage, aren’t they?
LIGHT: Umm-hmm. Yeah, I think Voice of San Diego in particular does a good job and has got some quality people. They’re – I mean, from a business perspective or from an audience perspective, that’s going to be quite narrow but for that audience, which includes somebody like me, it’s quite good, I think. The San Diego News Network is at the opposite end of that spectrum. They are generating a much broader audience, certainly, than Voice of San Diego. I would say a fairly shallow level of engagement, but they’re very new and they’ve actually had some impressive gains early on, I think.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, let’s take – Let’s go to the phones. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 and we’re also urging you to post your comments online at KPBS.org/thesedays. Richard is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Richard, and welcome to These Days.
RICHARD (Caller, San Diego): I guess that’s me, right?
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Hi, Richard.
RICHARD: Oh, hi. I used to be an employee at Copley corporate and in terms of the holding company that used to own the various newspapers, everybody in the divisions knew that, of course, they had to report to the corporate office in terms of their revenue and expenses. But the official word was that each individual newspaper had its own independence in terms of editorial opinion. As a matter of fact, because of the style of the Copley family and the people hired throughout the organization and the close relationship that Copley had with the Republican Party, the people who tended to be on the editorial staffs would give ‘the Copley line.’ Now in any way does the new editor have any unofficial corporate editorial policy from Platinum?
CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you. So, Platinum Equity, do they have a line the way the Cop – this gentleman says the Copley family had a line when it comes to editorials.
LIGHT: Yeah, not at all. I mean, that’s what’s really striking about this. The – what, the Platinum—excuse me—what the Platinum guys want is a successful local media model. What’s attractive about the Platinum people is that they’ve made this bet, laid their money down in the San Diego market, saying, you know, we really think locals can win. If you get back to the questions about the internet space, the real competition there from a business perspective is will the national players or the local players win? So I regard the Platinum people as an invigorating presence. More to the point, there’s no ideological bent at all from the Platinum crew. The closest thing to that that I’ve seen is somebody saying to me, wow, how can we make our business section better? Just because they’re people who are interested in business…
LIGHT: …as am I. So – And we have some plans afoot already to move some resources back to business that have probably been cut too much, so…
CAVANAUGH: We have another caller on the line. Dita is calling from University Heights. Good morning, Dita, and welcome to These Days.
VITA (Caller, University Heights): Hi. It’s Vita, not Dita.
CAVANAUGH: So sorry, Vita.
VITA: That’s okay. Yes, I do want to say some good things mostly. Three writers stand out: Vargas, Coddon, and LaFee. And also I like your Food section. Now I’m an LA Times subscriber, Thursday through Sunday, and they recently went back to Thursday Food section. Now I know you have the strong Night and Day, which you were messing around with the format a little while ago but you kind of went back to how it was, and I approve of that. And then that Ruben guy that does kind of like commentary, he ain’t Steve Lopez, okay? And that’s what I wanted to say.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Vita, thanks so much for your call. I really appreciate it. I think you’ve made your likes and dislikes well known. Let’s talk to Bijon, calling from San Diego. Good morning, Bijon. Welcome to These Days.
BIJON (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you very much for taking my call. Basically my comment was that now that we have a new leadership in the U-T paper – publication, and new owners, this is a great opportunity to maybe take this paper to next level to be in line with the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, some – a lot more valuable paper than what we have known and loved as the Union-Tribune.
CAVANAUGH: And, Bijon, how would Jeff do that? Do you have any idea?
BIJON: Yeah, basically I want to know what is his vision of taking it just to the next level…
CAVANAUGH: Thank you.
BIJON: …because – Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that.
LIGHT: Yeah, I like that question and that challenge and I sort of am a similar mind. My blueprint for this has to do with – Well, let me tell you what I’ve got people working on. On the one side, I’ve asked people to undergo a process, to begin a process, to really understand what does quality look like in the U-T? What is the value that we’re adding? When we go to write a story, what guides us to say what are we trying to find out? What are we trying to accomplish? What does good look like for us? And I would say there is a layer of our work that I consider quite excellent where that thoughtfulness goes in. On a routine basis, I think there’s room for improvement. Secondly, identifying that real map of interest and expertise that we need to follow, in other words, what are the topics to focus on? You see this in all the media companies which have taken these large cuts over the last several years, overextended groups that are trying to do the same thing writ smaller. So with less space and less staff, you end up with sort of a meager mix of coverage, which is not in the direction that the caller is asking for. So refining both what quality means and, secondly, what we’re focused on and then layering on top of that this ability to publish on several platforms. So my general principles are to organize around content expertise, to support content experts in their effort to report, qualify sources, provide insight—that’s the basic business—and then provide to them publishing tasks that can creatively and in a first rate way shape that material to the appropriate platforms. So you’ll see a redesign of the print product probably late summer and we’ll have some people involved in doing that that I think will get at some of the qualities that I think the caller is looking for. It’s interesting because when I look at the papers around the country, I do think the New York Times is doing a good job and I think Russ Stanton’s doing a good job at the LA Times. I do not think, in general, that local newspapers are meeting the mark right now, so I think that there’s some – this idea of another level in this next phase of the newspaper era is one that I agree with.
CAVANAUGH: And let me translate this newspaper speak a little bit.
CAVANAUGH: Do you mean the U-T’s going to start looking differently this summer?
CAVANAUGH: The newspaper.
LIGHT: Yeah, by – toward the end of summer, there’ll be some changes in the look of the paper and we’ll examine things like do we have the right sections on the right days? You know, Food Thursday? Night and Day, how should that be? And what is the basic underlying template that drives the presentation of the news in that paper? So I think this will lead to a more orderly and a higher quality product in the end.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Dawn is calling us from Lemon Grove. Good morning, Dawn. Welcome to These Days.
DAWN (Caller, Lemon Grove): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to comment that the U-T is known, you know, nationwide for their book reviews. And I want to make sure that, you know, the book reviews and the arts reviews still get some prominence. To me, Night and Day isn’t as helpful as having those things daily. For instance, I had no clue that Michelle Obama was going to be in my neighborhood…
DAWN: …and so community happenings as well as, you know, our world class book reviews and arts reviews are very important to me. Is that going to be kept on? And I can take the answer off the air.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Dawn.
LIGHT: Sure, I think the arts are certainly one of the pillars of this community so we absolutely want to make sure we’re doing a great job there. And I will say I didn’t realize that our book reviews are nationally known, so I’ve learned something.
CAVANAUGH: And what about Michelle Obama? She didn’t know she was in City Heights.
LIGHT: Yeah, that’s not good. I’ll need to go back and look at what we did with that.
CAVANAUGH: Mark is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Mark. Welcome to These Days.
MARK (Caller, San Diego): Hi, yeah, thank you. I – Three points. One, I notice the front page now is almost every, every day all local news even when there’s big national, international news. The volcano, Afghanistan, healthcare, it’s on the page three, which sort of disturbs me a little, I guess. The second thing though that I really like is it seems there are more like charts and maps and sort of explanatory things like with some of the business stories and some of the port stories, showing where the park would be along the harbor, which I find is really good.
MARK: And the third thing is I’m just curious as to the website. Are there any plans where you will introduce blogs like…
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Got you, Mark. Thank you so much for the call.
LIGHT: Umm-hmm. Three great points there. I guess I’ll take the second one first. Yeah, charting and graphing or graphic reporting, in my mind, is important, especially in print which I see as a medium for analysis, design and narrative. So the analysis piece of that—and by that I don’t mean someone’s opinion, I mean careful, orderly thought about the underpinnings of a topic—I consider info-graphics, news-graphics, a fundamental part of that, so that’s something that I’d like to do more with. I’m glad the caller liked the port graphic. I liked it, too. I felt like we should’ve had it the first day.
LIGHT: Right, because I think when people live in a environment of news, you hear news all day long, the role of the print product is to clarify, bring clarity and simplicity out of complexity, and give readers a chance to take stock in an orderly way.
CAVANAUGH: And I wonder if, indeed, this isn’t one of the ways in which the highly visual web product is influencing the newspaper?
LIGHT: Maybe. I consider the visual side of the web a little bit differently, and I can talk about that in a second. Let me get to this caller’s other points. The – Oh, national news. Well, we did have Afghanistan on the front page today, for instance, and when the volcano happened, we played that on A-1. He had one other mention that also was important. Generally, though, what we want to do is be a local media outlet. So you will see much more local than national emphasis, more so online than in the print product. People do live, you know, both in San Diego and in the nation and in the world. All those things are important. So you won’t see a U-T like appeared a year ago where everything mostly on the front page was national or international news. But we will continue to have those topics. The website, introducing blogs, yes, we will have a new emphasis on blogs both from the community and also driven by our staffers. And when I say blog by staffers, I don’t mean something that is a vehicle for their opinion but I think the ability to cultivate an audience around a topic by a expert journalist really happens best in that space where you can see all the work together, where you can sense the hand and the mind of the expert, and where you can engage with them on a real time basis, him or her. So to me that suggests that our site ought to be much more oriented around individual blogs as the beginning point for each of these wells of information that we’re talking about.
CAVANAUGH: Amazingly, we are out of time, Jeff. So many people are on the line waiting to talk to you, I’m going to ask them, please, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays, and post your comments. Jeff Light, vice president and editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LIGHT: Yeah, thank you for having me and I will try to answer some e-mails if you send me people’s questions since I talked so long with these answers.
CAVANAUGH: And what is your e-mail address?
CAVANAUGH: And we’ll have that posted on our website as well. Thanks again.
LIGHT: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Coming up, our South Bay update as These Days continues here on KPBS.