The Morning Report
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As the San Diego Union-Tribune’s print readership declined and the paper began cutting its staff four years ago, it faced a series of tough questions. Among the most vital was this: What role would the newspaper’s website play in the future of its news delivery?

The answer, though, was never very clear. The Union-Tribune acknowledged the web’s importance — it already had a small news team that mobilized each morning, utilizing the website to break news. But with a few exceptions, its effort to launch blogs was largely abandoned. In delivering its stories each day, the Union-Tribune felt like a printed newspaper first, a website second.

Though news was shifting online, the two employees responsible for guiding the newspaper through that evolution had a bad relationship. Karin Winner, the editor who oversaw the newspaper, and Chris Jennewein, who oversaw the website, SignOnSanDiego.com, didn’t get along. The entities were separate. During one 2007 strategy meeting, Winner famously told reporters: Don’t tell the employees at SignOn what we talked about here.

Both those employees are now gone. Winner retired in late December. Chris Jennewein, who oversaw the website, was laid off in May 2008.

Enter Jeff Light, the 49-year-old hired Thursday as the Union-Tribune’s editor, replacing Winner. Light is the former vice president of interactive of the Orange County Register, where he’d worked since 1993.

We can learn this much from his hiring: The newspaper’s attitude toward the web will be different.

“I suspect you’ll see two things from him — a stronger, more dynamic online presence and stronger investigations,” said Chris Knap, the Register’s investigations editor. “Certainly in the last couple of years, Jeff’s specialty has been the online side. I think the U-T needs that. They need some help there.”

Norberto Santana Jr., editor-in-chief of Voice of OC, a nonprofit news site in Orange County, worked at both the Union-Tribune and the Register. So he’s seen both Winner and Light in action. He said the former had a love-hate relationship with the web; that the latter is a big believer in the online future of news.

“He’s a real shakeup for San Diego,” Santana said. “At the Union-Tribune, when you had a new idea, it was: ‘Write a proposal, study it for six months, we’ll think about it.’ Jeff is comfortable trying unconventional things. What does this mean for the Union-Tribune? Expect a more robust online presence.”

Santana, who left the Register last year, gave this example: On a recent Orange County election night, the paper’s government team pitched Light on the idea of a running blog through the night. Instead of simply writing a late-night story with a wrap-up of results, they shared vignettes from candidates, polling stations and parties through the night.

“He’d embrace unconventional ideas,” Santana said. “He was OK with bucking conventional wisdom on a particular story — and would push to cover things in nonconventional ways.”

Light also has plenty of investigative experience. He was part of the Register’s 1996 staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigative series that revealed that a local fertility clinic had stolen eggs from anesthetized patients without telling them. He managed teams that were Pulitzer finalists in 2004 and 2005.

Mark Katches, editorial director of California Watch and former investigations editor at the Register, said Light “has tons of energy and passion for news and he is always pushing people to think outside the box. He’s not at all interested in clinging to the past way of doing things.”

Clarification: Light e-mailed to say he was on the Register’s 1996 Pulitzer-winning staff, not team. “To say I was on the team implies much more credit that I am due,” he wrote. “This was a staff award, and I was part of the staff that participated. For example, I ran the package profiling the offending doctors the first weekend. But I don’t think that story was even in the prize submission.”

 

— ROB DAVIS

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