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Sunday, April 19, 2009 | When he began publishing the San Diego Union in 1868, newspaperman William Jeff Gatewood promised that the paper would maintain “a wise and masterly silence” on political matters.

So much for that.

A Republican editorial voice has remained in place at the Union-Tribune empire for more than eight decades under Copley family ownership. Now, new bosses will soon be running the show, and The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial direction is uncertain.

It could swerve to the left and endorse Democrats for president, like the two major daily U.S. newspapers owned by the Black Press, whose CEO is a partner in the purchase of the U-T by private equity firm Platinum Equity. Or it could remain a GOP bastion in a county that just recently became home to more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Whatever happens, the U-T is at a crossroads in terms of how it chooses to wield its influence, which some say remains strong despite the newspaper’s recent financial troubles. “What the paper says tends to trickle down in conversation, tends to set the tone of what people are going to be talking about,” said Duane Dichiara, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento who works with San Diego politicians. “That’s powerful.”

At the moment, the editorial direction of the U-T is only one of many issues that are up in the air. The newspaper’s employees are still awaiting word from Platinum Equity, which is in the process of buying the paper, about expected layoffs and other cutbacks.

Bill Osborne, the U-T’s senior editor of editorial and opinion, said in an e-mail that he’s as much in the dark as anyone about where the new owners will position the U-T politically.

“We truly don’t know anything yet,” he said. “We’re as curious, probably more so, than our readers and the general community.”

Traditionally, a newspaper’s owners — like the Copleys — choose its editorial stance. In some cases, a chain of papers may require its editorial page to toe the company line, at least on national issues.

Compared to other newspapers, however, the U-T will be in an unusual position. Its Beverly-Hills based owner is not local, like many individual newspaper owners. The paper won’t be part of a chain either, although it will have sibling papers, of a sort, through Black Press, a Canadian-owned newspaper chain. While the CEO of Black Press is a partner in the paper’s purchase, it’s not clear what role it will play.

Black Press owns two major daily newspapers in the U.S., the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Akron Beacon Journal. Both supported Democrats for president in the 2004 and 2008 elections, and both newspapers serve counties that lean Democratic.

However, Platinum Equity’s CEO, Thomas Gores, gave $20,000 to the state Republican Party in 2006.

Even if the U-T retains its right-leaning stance in its editorial pages, one observer says some conservative readers won’t be impressed because they think of the paper as one liberal monolith regardless of whom it endorses.

“Republicans largely have a hostile feeling toward most mass media, and there’s very few people who understand there’s a difference between editorials and reporting,” said Dichiara, the political consultant.

In fact, he said, polls suggest that Republicans and Democrats view the U-T editorial page in about the same way.

Despite varying perceptions, the U-T’s conservative reputation is well-deserved. The newspaper and its predecessors, the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, have been perennial endorsers of Republicans for president. The Union even endorsed the Republican in 1936, when Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won more than 62 percent of the county vote.

In more recent years, however, the paper’s strict Republicanism has moderated somewhat. It has endorsed Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, for senator and Jerry Brown, another Democrat, for attorney general, and the paper opposed the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

“As the county has changed, I think the newspaper has, too,” said Osborne, who reported that the paper’s endorsement of John McCain for president last fall “was not a slam dunk” because there was considerable support on the editorial board for Barack Obama.

Still, critics say the newspaper’s editorial page continues to defend the city’s Republican establishment.

In the big picture, the U-T’s actual influence on events and elections is debatable, with consultants disagreeing over its powers of persuasion.

On one hand, Osborne said the newspaper’s endorsements jibe with those of voters about 70 percent of the time.

And Scott Maloni, a former political consultant, said polls suggest that a U-T endorsement could boost a candidate’s numbers by 3-5 percentage points. “That could be the difference between winning and losing,” said Maloni, who’s currently vice president of development for Poseidon Resources.

Dichiara, however, isn’t convinced that U-T endorsements carry much weight. “The endorsement power is not what it was even 10 years ago” he said. “The only time they’re useful is in a down-ballot race where nobody knows who anybody is.”

Endorsements may even serve as impediments in campaigns if readers think the paper has ulterior motives. Mark Jurkowitz, former ombudsman of the Boston Globe, said he once convened a panel of sophisticated newspaper readers and they “all had a significant amount of skepticism toward the whole process of endorsement.”

Jurkowitz, now associate director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said “they didn’t understand why the newspaper did (endorsements). There was an underlying suspicion that there’s a quid pro quo here.”

Whatever happens next, the U-T editorial page seems likely to continue to vex readers of all political persuasions.

As Osborne put it: “I can tell you that on many occasions I have received an email, letter or phone call from a reader saying he or she was canceling a subscription because our editorial page was too conservative, only to be followed — often the same day — by a reader saying he or she was canceling because our editorial page was too liberal.”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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