What the New Union-Tribune Looks Like

What the New Union-Tribune Looks Like

Will Parson

Jeff Light

Going forward, The San Diego Union-Tribune’s newsroom promises to be different: Flatter, with fewer editors overseeing what reporters write. Refocused, with senior reporters freed up to delve more deeply into their beats and publish straight to the web. And smaller, with fewer journalists on staff.

The Union-Tribune laid off 35 newsroom employees Thursday, part of a planned reorganization that comes as the newspaper is simultaneously hiring, recruiting both new leaders and entry-level reporters. I sat down Friday morning with Jeff Light to talk about his first cuts as the paper’s editor, and the organization’s seventh round of layoffs or buyouts since late 2006.

Driven by the economy or your reorganization plan?

The real driver is how do we create this multiplatform publishing newsroom. This has been a very wrenching disruption for everybody. Now, also part of that, is budget requirements that the publisher has given us based on his responsibilities. What he thinks the right size of company is. It’s the combination of those two things. Taken together, it’s pretty wrenching.

Last time you were here, you asked if I saw some big layoff, and I said no. Well, I guess I wasn’t very good at foreseeing. At that point, I didn’t have some requirement from the publisher. If you’d taken that out, you still would’ve seen layoffs just from the restructure, and a lot of disruption to the mix of roles. I would not just blame the publisher (Ed Moss). That really wouldn’t be fair. It’s partly his fault, though.

You’re laying off and hiring. The net effect though is that the newsroom is smaller.

Yes. The net effect is smaller. I’m not allowed to talk about numbers. That’s one request Ed made of me. Ed’s a good publisher, he’s really somebody I like working for, so I’m going to respect that. But the net effect is much smaller than the number of people who left yesterday.

The reported number (35 layoffs) exaggerates the effect on the newsroom because of the people coming in?

The newsroom is not 35 people smaller. But it is smaller. And that’s of no solace to those, who through absolutely no fault of their own, ended up losing their job. That’s pretty harsh.

Just to be very clear: The number exaggerates the effect because you’re in the process of hiring.

Yes. And because some of the people rather than being laid off are in the process of electing to take some of those lower-paid jobs.

Talking about that new role. I’m struck a little bit by the contradiction of your editor’s note yesterday, which said you want reporters to have a distinct voice, and the job description for junior staff writer, that says you don’t want that, that you want “a low level of complexity, analysis and narrative.”

We want to have these expert voices, but we still have this requirement of having the proper breadth. In our zoned (regional) editions right now, what I want to see is lots of stuff on a daily basis: What’s going on? What’s happening?

And then we still need to have the capability to bring that level of analysis and narrative. So we have senior reporters who are associated with those areas.

It’s not like we’re turning the keys to the U-T over to inexperienced people. What we’ve done is say we need to install another level — a more efficient level — of reporter, just to cover the breadth of what’s going on in the community and generate the volume.

They’ll go to the City Council meeting, cover the planning commission, type up the new businesses, write the cop blotter. I don’t think I should be paying a person with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree to do those things. But that stuff’s got to be done. How am I going to get it done? I’m going to hire lower-paid people to do that and higher-paid people to do more sophisticated tasks.

So I don’t think there’s a failure in the logic there. Though I see how it could be seen or even twisted that way. I think it’s the right thing to do. However, I’d also say that doing that has a terrible toll on the organization. Changing the mix means in this case changing people and what they’re paid. That’s what I mean by wrenching. That is not easy to do.

Your editor’s note yesterday said you’re eliminating a traditional copy editor desk. Is there concern that more errors will get in the paper or that there were too many layers of editors between a reporter’s copy and the newspaper?

I didn’t do this only because of too many layers. But there are too many layers. Part of that creates a system where quality is not built in from the beginning. This is not going to work unless we have professional writers who can write, and editors who can edit. You’d think that’s a safe expectation, but if you’ve worked in newsrooms, you know the stuff coming through is not always …

Spelled right.

Or up to standard. There’s going to be some adjustment. People need to take responsibility at the beginning and put quality in at the beginning, because the industry can’t afford all this checking.

What of this reorganization will readers see, feel, notice?

Online, things should be easier to find. And a greater volume of material. Right now, the governor on how much is being written by our newsroom is how much fits in the paper.

I think the print paper will be more informative. The newspaper redesign will try to organize around a sense of brief or deep. Right now, it’s sort of all medium. People should feel better informed.

Increased focus on business reporting. (The paper plans to add coverage of the defense industry, clean technology, small businesses, commercial real estate and refill its biotech beat.) Why?

The research (reader polls) showed that as a big want and not a big get.

This does strike me as the first time any type of cut has been made with any type of vision — for better or worse — regardless of how it turns out.

Right — we’ll find out whether it works.

From talking to the people I know here, through the shrinking of the last four years, a constant refrain was: What the hell are they talking about? The message that was drilled home was in the press releases: We’re cutting 190 people today but we’re going to be stronger than ever.

Yeah — we’ll do more with less. And you know what we were doing? Less of the same. That was the plan. Just keep doing less of the same. That is not going to lead to bigger audiences or better engagement.

We’ve got to do stuff differently. But it’s so hard to make these changes.

– Interview conducted and edited by ROB DAVIS

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Andrew Donohue

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