The day after the announcement of an agreement to sell the U-T San Diego to the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, the reaction among a variety of civic leaders struck a welcoming tone to the new owner, tempered with a cautious note of wait-and-see about possible changes in a newspaper that traces its lineage back 146 years.
"The U-T has an incredible track record of excellent journalists and quality reporting, and I'm looking forward to the next chapter,” said Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who has enjoyed support from the U-T editorial page.
Councilman Todd Gloria, a Democrat who garnered praise as interim mayor after the resignation of scandal-plagued Bob Filner, was upbeat about comments made by Times Publisher Austin Beutner about improving an already good newspaper.
“I welcome Los Angeles acquiring our newspaper,” said Gloria, “but not our football team. In all seriousness, combining the L.A. Times strong journalistic track record with the U-T’s local expertise and hard-working staff is good news for San Diego.”
Initial indications are that the new ownership will not experience the kind of antipathy that other Los Angeles-based organizations have felt in San Diego. One example is the long, litigation-filled marriage between the local water authority and the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Jerry Sanders, a former mayor who is now chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that while the preference is for the newspaper to remain locally owned, there is widespread understanding about the financial turmoil in the news industry.
“It’s a changing world,” Sanders said. “I’m sure that nobody in Los Angeles thought Chicago would someday own their hometown newspaper.”
Like others, Sanders said he hopes The Times' national and foreign reporting will bolster the U-T, which no longer has a Washington bureau, for example, even as San Diego County members of Congress have gained clout.
“My hope is this increases the ability to dig deeper, do more investigative work, and more features about San Diego’s unique profile as a leader in the world’s emerging brain-powered economy,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego).
But there will be others who will be watching for any center-drift of the U-T's strongly conservative editorial page.
"We San Diegans have always prided ourselves on being 'not-L.A.,'" said Mark Larson, conservative radio talk-show host on KCBQ. “Ideologically, the U-T and its editorial policy have mirrored this attitude. Locals won’t quickly warm to this business marriage or believe promises that the papers 'will remain separate brands.'"
On the other hand, Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, said that the political views of U-T owner Douglas Manchester were out of step with a changing city, in which Republicans no longer hold a voter registration edge. He noted Beutner’s suggestion that he may drop the appellation U-T.
“Manchester was too hands-on with a heavy-handed conservative, red-state-worthy editorial stance in a city increasingly going purple,” Luna said. “Hopefully ... a restored San Diego Union-Tribune can become a voice which speaks to and for an increasingly diverse and dynamic San Diego.”
The fact that Manchester, as part of the sale, retains ownership of the company’s property, including its headquarters in Mission Valley, seems to have softened any resistance to the sale.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any wounded civic pride,” said Supervisor Ron Roberts. “[Manchester] got the developable land and that seemed to be his interest in the paper.”
Manchester, known best as a hotel builder and philanthropist when he bought the newspaper in 2011, has said he would like to build housing on the property in Mission Valley at the intersection of California 163 and Interstate 8.
As part of the sale, the new owners have a one-year lease but will be moving “somewhere nearby” by the time the lease expires, Beutner told several hundred U-T employees Thursday.
Dean Nelson, journalism professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the sale if it leads to additional reporting.
“The only way San Diegans will resent this sale is if The Times turns the U-T into just an extension of its own paper,” Nelson said. “If the U-T retains autonomy, then I doubt that there will be any serious backlash.”
The Manchester legacy of owning the newspaper “is minimal, bordering on harmful,” Nelson said.
The antipathy toward Los Angeles may be more of a feeling among officialdom than the overall populace, said Steve Erie, professor of political science at UC San Diego, co-author of a book about San Diego politics and land-use.
“Growing up in the shadow of L.A., San Diegans have a long history of fearing L.A. carpetbaggers,” Erie said. “With the Chargers considering a move to L.A., San Diego officials may be especially sensitive to another L.A. takeover. Not so the average San Diegan.”
George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, said “sale of the hometown paper to The Times will upset local Luddites. But the more enlightened among the town citizenry know The Times is superior to the U-T, and if the buyout means better journalism for San Diego, then the new ownership should be welcomed, not scorned.”
Erie has advice for the new owner: “Keep San Diego on the masthead and rehire the U-T sports columnists.”