How the Union-Tribune’s new owners could impact democracy in San Diego County
The first thing Ron Loveridge did each morning when he was mayor of Riverside from the 1990s through the early 2000s was read the local newspaper, The Riverside Press-Enterprise.
“I’d be surprised if anybody at City Hall looks at The Press-Enterprise now,” said Loveridge, who has since retired from politics. “It’s fundamentally not a player in the political, economic decisions of this region any longer. We are an explicit example of the disappearance of local news.”
At the dawn of this century, The Press-Enterprise employed more than 100 journalists. Their coverage of school boards, city councils and county government — along with investigative reporting — were central to the region’s democratic process. Today, the bureaus are gone and only a handful of reporters work from home or in a tiny space in their old headquarters downtown.
Loveridge partially blames The Press-Enterprise’s descent into insignificance on the New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which bought the paper in 2016. A significant amount of this downsizing happened under Alden’s ownership.
In July, Alden bought The San Diego Union-Tribune from biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. Already, there are signs that the Union-Tribune is following in the Press-Enterprise’s footsteps. Hours after announcing its ownership of the Union-Tribune, Alden offered buyouts to the newsroom. The journalists who accepted them left with decades of community memory of public corruption cases, city hall history, courts, public safety and politics.
Loveridge says what Alden did to the Press-Enterprise and is now doing to the Union-Tribune shows how dollars trump democracy.
“It's part of capitalism run amok, because we used to have a celebrated paper,” said Loveridge, who now teaches political science at UC Riverside. “There was the sense that the paper was the guardian of our future. Now, it's just simply a kind of silent passenger.”
The Union-Tribune is the latest of more than 200 newspapers to be acquired by Alden through its subsidiaries. Alden is now the second largest newspaper owner in the nation, with only Virginia-based Gannett Co. owning more.
The company’s holdings include venerable mastheads like the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and New York Daily News. In addition to the Union-Tribune and The Press-Enterprise, Alden’s California papers include The Mercury News in San Jose and The Orange County Register.
An Alden spokesperson did not make a company representative available for comment for this story.
To be sure, over the past two decades, the Union-Tribune had suffered through multiple rounds of cutbacks under several different owners. But it had enjoyed a reprieve of sorts since 2018, when it was included in Soon-Shiong’s purchase of the Los Angeles Times. Soon-Shiong didn’t add resources to the Union-Tribune like he did at the Times, but he also didn’t make cuts.
‘Nobody knows what’s going on’
Riverside’s experience shows that the cuts made at the Union-Tribune so far under Alden will likely continue, and they will be felt throughout the community. Loveridge remembers The Press-Enterprise serving as a countywide platform for information and conversation.
“There was an understanding that we were all in this together,” Loveridge said. “There was a sense of common destiny between the newspaper and the community.”
Through its reporting, Loveridge believes The Press-Enterprise fulfilled its duty of educating readers about whether its neighborhoods were safe, its schools decent; and offered answers on how well local governments were delivering key services like health care and trash pickup.
“People don’t have time to search out this information on their own,” Loveridge said.
But now, many are forced to do just that. Among them is Riverside resident Keith Wiley. “You’ve got to have reporters to cover cities or else nobody knows what’s going on,” Wiley said.
The damage goes beyond just knowing what’s going on, says Loveridge and others. Instead of reporting on the process of policy development and its repercussions, The Press-Enterprise has been reduced to covering government decisions after elected officials have already made up their minds.
“In American politics, access is local, it’s not at the state level, not at the federal level,” Loveridge said. “But there’s no access if you have no information. And the absence of information makes the democratic conversation locally almost nonexistent.”
As a result, whole communities are divorced from the give and take of formulating public policy, a fundamental tenet of democracy. Also, without a robust news environment, elected officials and power brokers can obscure the truth with only the facts that suit their needs.
“And they just want to present the best possible view of who they are and so you have these competing social media narratives with no common information,” Loveridge said.
A void in Orange County
The bleak picture painted by Loveridge is mirrored in Orange County, San Diego’s neighbor to the north. The region was once blanketed by The Orange County Register with hundreds of reporters and editors covering 34 cities, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington D.C.
Frank Mickadeit started out as a reporter, then worked as an editor and finally as a columnist at the Register until 2014. During his tenure, he said the paper’s mission was to provide saturated local news coverage and hold municipal and county governments accountable.
“We just poured a lot of money and resources into every corner of journalism that existed and it was exciting,” Mickadeit said.
Now, under Alden’s ownership, the paper is covering the county of three million people with about a dozen reporters working mostly from home.
The Register still does investigative reporting, but it’s not unusual for one reporter to cover five big cities. Mickadeit points to an explosive public corruption scandal that has engulfed Anaheim, the county’s largest city. He said the Register’s coverage of the scandal — including influence peddling, pay-to-play schemes and theft of public money — relied on an investigative report by an outside law firm hired by the city.
“That’s a textbook example of why you don’t want local news coverage to go away,” said Mickadeit, who is now a lawyer.
He says if the scandal had occurred 20 years ago, the paper would have likely caught wind of the story after being tipped off by sources.
“The whole scandal would not have gone on for months and months only to be finally revealed in a report by a private firm, a lot of that would have come out through reporting from the newspaper,” Mickadeit said. “And what's kind of scary about it is that we found out about Anaheim, but who knows how many other Anaheims are out there? We don't know and we may never know.”
Anaheim resident Cynthia Ward, a longtime civic activist and former mayoral candidate, said many people had contacted Register reporters for years about suspected wrongdoing at Anaheim City Hall but could not get the paper to probe further.
Ward blames the lack of follow-through on the dearth of journalists. She said assigning many large cities to one reporter is unrealistic and limits independent fact-checking.
“Reporters who are tasked with covering multiple cities will gladly accept press releases and other subject-produced information that would have been vetted in the past, which leaves us with articles that don't always tell the whole story,” Ward said.
Research shows that diminished or no local news coverage breeds corruption, higher taxes and lower voter turnout.
“The republic, we’re the losers,” Mickadeit said. “The notion that you can really be fulfilled by reading (the social media app) Next Door is kind of pathetic. Even more benign forums like Facebook cannot truly fulfill the need that people have to receive well-reasoned, thoughtful, well-reported journalism. So the country, the republic, everybody's in trouble because of this.”
There has been a nationwide movement to fill the public accountability gap left by the demise of newspapers with nonprofit news startups. Local examples are Voice of San Diego and inewsource, which prioritize investigative journalism.
But those organizations have much smaller staff and funding, compared to newspapers.
Northwestern University Journalism professor Penny Abernathy, who studies the news landscape, said other digital news sites, commercial television news and public broadcasting have not filled the void
“That means if you lose a newspaper, you’re not very likely to get a replacement,” Abernathy said.
Mickadeit said that the public bears some responsibility for newspapers’ overall decline. If people were willing to pay $500 a year for a subscription, he said “you’d have a better local paper, and you’d know about yourself and your community.”
But he doesn’t fault Alden for using hedge fund tactics in its ownership of the Register by hollowing out the newsroom.
“Because they do what they do, and it's like blaming a shark for doing what a shark does,” Mickadeit said.
San Diego’s largest newspaper has been sold once again. What does it mean for the future of local journalism in San Diego?