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Jeff Light, who started as The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editor March 8, steps into a newsroom that’s roughly half the size it was four years ago.
Plummeting revenues forced cuts and more cuts, starting in 2006 and continuing through last year. Still more cuts are possible: A reorganization is scheduled this summer, though Light says no mass layoff is planned.
Light, a 49-year-old former Orange County Register vice president, continues the newspaper’s sharp break with tradition. Since early 2009, it has a new owner, a new publisher, and now, a new editor.
We sat down to talk with him about the Union-Tribune’s future, the planned newsroom reorganization, his not-so-interesting personal politics and his view of the famous editorial page.
There have been three personalities here that have had their own universe: David Copley as publisher, Karin Winner as editor and Bob Kittle as editorial page editor. Bob ended up as the face of the paper. Is that something you consciously work to shift?
I’d say no. There’s a lot of history here, and clearly that’s important. I don’t want to diminish the significance of any of that history. But I’m not a particular student of it. I want to be respectful of it, but that’s not the thing that’s shaping what I’m doing.
Do you expect more staff cuts this year?
There will be rearranging and restructuring of the staff. We’re working on that now. There’s not a plan for some big layoff.
A restructuring to accomplish what?
A couple of things. The reshaping of the staff here has been done under fire. They were trying to turn this place around. Revenues were being lost, so they needed to act. Pretty hard to do thoughtfully. You had people a little bit under siege trying to do the best they could. We have to figure out what are the important things, what can we focus on.
As the cuts happened, the person who was covering one city was then covering four. And the goal was still to have the same depth or quality of coverage. But you’re spreading fewer reporters over the same area.
Yeah. We need to have better depth and quality. We need better depth, better presentation in print. Stronger real-time news. Video. And better graphics. How are we going to do all that? You’ve got to cover fewer things.
Is the goal still to be the quote-unquote newspaper of record?
That phrase can mean a lot of things. We are the establishment media brand. That comes with a lot of expectations and responsibility. And we intend to meet those.
Paper of record could imply something we’ve never been. I’m reluctant to define myself for some term, but the U-T will remain the instrument, the media outlet that covers the areas of interest and influence that we believe are most critical to San Diego.
Timeframe for reorganization?
Your view of the politics of the editorial page? There’s been a vocal swath of the population that felt disenfranchised by what they’d call the anti-union, pro-developer bent of the page. You described it with KPBS as the “Copley world view.”
When the paper was owned by the family, the paper was appropriately the place where they promoted the values and decisions they thought were important. That’s what any owner would do under that model. Now I think we face an interesting question. The current ownership has no particular political bent at all. They’re uninterested in promoting a political agenda. That raises an unanswered question: How do we think about a leadership role in the community that those editorial pages require?
Is there some assessment of that process or that value of the paper?
I think there will be an assessment. It’s not something I’m deeply engaged in. I don’t believe that the highest good would come from some guy — even if it were me — firing off their opinions on what they think should happen in town. It’s a leadership opportunity. You don’t want to have it be a poll. Nor am I comfortable with it being an opinion mill.
How do you describe your politics?
There are these little tests you can take. I tend to score right in the middle. It’s not very interesting.
The paper’s Washington, D.C. bureau was cut. Do you see a need for D.C.-based local coverage?
It’s unlikely that will be restored.
Can you outline priorities for the newsroom going forward? General focus?
There’s a lot on the table. Some things I’m interested in: Organizing around a web-first workflow. Upgrading the design of the print product. There’s a long list.
With the web-first model, focus on Twitter, is there some growing pain to that? The editor’s note that ran with coverage of Marti Emerald (her Ethics Commission hearing) apologized for a reporter’s tone and opinion on Twitter. Did that go beyond calling balls and strikes?
It did, and it was wrong.
In what way?
Our use of Twitter should be to engage an audience, crowdsource information, to improve our ability to identify and execute stories. Great tool. It should not be a place to express opinion or showcase personality outside of the professional persona of the journalist. In this case, I didn’t think those things happened.
Do you see enough focus on investigative reporting?
I think we need more focus on investigative reporting.
How do you get that?
You have some more people to do it, I guess.
Do you continue the relationship with the Watchdog Institute? Does that investigative reporting come back in house?
I don’t think it’s an either-or. Clearly, I don’t think you can outsource investigative journalism. Certainly, I’m open to using third-party sources, including that. I don’t think that can be our primary source of real fact finding.
It is a relationship you see continuing?
I’d say in looking at the total use of resources, which I’m just beginning to engage in, I would not commit to any particular comic or beat or relationship at all. But only because I don’t know. I’d be cautious about framing that as: Oh my God, he wouldn’t say.
Do anonymous comments have a future on the website?
Yeah probably they do for practical purposes. But I’m much more a fan — if it could be done — of real-name comments. We’re trying to promote this civic discourse. Anonymous comments have not necessarily promoted that. I see a value in some ways. But in general a lot of good could be done if we had the kind of accountability that being named brings with it — in all of our journalistic endeavors. Solving for that is a little bit of a practical issue.
Identifying people by real name is a little bit time consuming. And it’s perilous: Because now I’m saying it’s you.
Is that not what newspapers have done with the letters to the editor pages?
How is this any different?
The pace is considerably different. But I agree with you. I think that is a desirable outcome. The way people behave when they’re anonymous is markedly different. The value, a little bit, is that if you read American newspapers before commenting came in, you would’ve developed the impression that — take race or immigration — that there is a structured and civic discourse. The value of those comments is that you see that there’s a whole thing going on that’s not reflected in newspapers.
Insulating these institutions from the way people see issues is not a good thing.
— Interview conducted and edited by ROB DAVIS