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Thursday, December 08, 2005 | The difficulties of The San Diego Union-Tribune are well-documented. A newspaper that a decade ago was closing in on 400,000 daily circulation, it had every expectation of picking up 60,000 more from the just-folded San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times and be on its way to a half million. The San Francisco Chronicle, with 550,000 circulation, was the state’s second newspaper behind the Times, but with San Francisco population declining and San Diego growing, the Union-Tribune was positioned to take over second place.

In the past decade, the big three California papers have all tumbled in circulation despite having monopoly positions in their cities. The Union-Tribune has slipped to just over 300,000, a 20-percent decline, and the Chronicle has fallen under 500,000 despite the elimination of the Examiner as competition. But the biggest fall of all is taking place in Los Angeles, where the once-great Times sold itself to Chicago owners, and Chicago is squeezing it dry.

Nowhere is the fall in trust illustrated more than in Southern California.

In the 1950s, the Times was all-powerful in Los Angeles. It picked police chiefs and attacked mayors who opposed its pet projects. In 1952, Times CEO Norman Chandler told Dwight Eisenhower to pick Richard Nixon rather than Bill Knowland or Earl Warren as his running mate and changed history. In an article ranking big-city newspapers, The New Yorker rated it second worst, trailing only the Chicago Tribune (which now owns it). The Economist called it “a shoddy sheet of the extreme-right.” Phillip Chandler, Norman’s brother, was head of the local John Birch Society. The Times had one reporter in Washington and none overseas. As newspapers go, it stank.

When Norman died, the paper mercifully passed (thanks to his wife, Buff), not to Phillip, but to son, Otis, the fourth generation of family owners. Otis decided that California deserved at least one good newspaper, and the Times joined that handful of national newspapers that includes The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. If the The New York Times could start a West Coast edition, said Otis, why shouldn’t the Los Angeles Times have an East Coast edition?

Two decades later, the Times was a billion dollar company with a 1.25 million daily circulation and nearly as many foreign bureaus as The New York Times – 27. It had gone from family-owned to publicly owned, though still controlled by the family. It had won 37 Pulitzer Prizes and become a communications giant by investing in television, books and magazines in addition to buying the Denver Post, New York Newsday and Dallas Times Herald. It hired the best people away from the better-known New York Times and Washington Post by paying them more and editing them less.

But a funny thing happened as Otis created a great newspaper: the family got greedy. Otis was already unpopular for having pushed his cousins, siblings and in-laws out of the picture, severed relations with the Republican Party, stopped endorsing presidential candidates and created a more liberal editorial page. The family accused him of investing too much in news, costing the family, which had extravagant tastes, money.

In 1985, Otis was pushed out, and the family brought in an executive from General Mills named Mark Willes, the so-called “cereal killer,” to boost the stock price. Ten years later, Willes had done his job: With Otis thundering from his ranch in Ojai, the family threw in the towel, selling out to the Chicago Tribune – a newspaper half the size of the Times – for $8 billion.

Since then, the Times’ circulation has steadily eroded, to 840,000 today, a nearly 50-percent drop from its heyday. The Times‘ precipitous drop is part of the steady erosion of national newspaper circulation, whose daily average has fallen to 55 million, down 10 million in a decade even as the nation’s population closes in on 300 million.

But in this general decline of newspapers, statistics show something revealing: Those newspapers that have been investing more in news coverage – for example, The New York Times, McClatchy and Newhouse – are gaining readers. It is the ones that are cutting news coverage to please shareholders and owners that are slipping. Leading the general decline in the past year was the Chicago Tribune (down 6.6 percent), and its chattel, the Los Angeles Times (down 6.5 percent). Over the past decade, no newspaper has done worse than The San Diego Union-Tribune, soon to fall under 300,000.

I’ve worked for newspapers most of my professional life, and it pains me deeply to see them commit hara-kiri. But squeezed between family greed (as in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco) and the chains’ quest for higher stock prices (Gannett, Knight-Ridder, the Chicago Tribune), the outcome is inevitable. The only newspapers with a chance to survive are those that win public trust through fair and honest reporting and commentary and by steering clear of pressure from advertisers and politicians.

Newspapers are not a business like others. The mission is to serve the public, not earn 25-percent profit margins. Newspapers that stay true to their mission will survive. The rest will be replaced by something better.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries.

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