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Hotelier Doug Manchester bought the San Diego Union-Tribune on Thursday, returning the paper to local ownership in a sale that would appear to turn a big profit for a private equity firm that bought it two years ago.

In a brief interview, Manchester said he paid “above” $110 million for the newspaper. “The asking price was a lot higher than that,” he said. The price is more than double what the Wall Street Journal said Platinum Equity bought the paper for in 2009.

Manchester, a prominent conservative downtown hotelier who insists on being called “Papa Doug,” takes the reins as owner; John Lynch, a former radio executive, will become the president and CEO of the newspaper company. Manchester declined other comment, saying the parties in the sale had agreed to stay silent until the deal was finalized between Nov. 30 and Dec. 15.

“Taking ownership of a 143-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization comes with great responsibility,” Manchester said in a prepared news release. “We believe San Diego is the finest city in America and pledge to be strong advocates for the city’s interests and conscientious caretakers of the Union-Tribune and its legacy.”

During a newsroom meeting, a source said Publisher Ed Moss welcomed the sale and reported that Manchester was interested in the newspaper — not just the 13 acres in Mission Valley that comes with it. The paper’s headquarters sits on valuable land just south of the Fashion Valley mall.

Though many journalists at the paper were relieved when the newspaper was sold in 2009, today’s reaction was mixed, the newsroom source said.

“Nobody was crying,” the person said, “but nobody was screaming with joy.”

After Platinum bought the newspaper in 2009, it hired a new publisher and editor, slowed the loss of print subscribers and put an increased focus online. The newspaper was redesigned, rebranded and reinvigorated after suffering through three listless years as Copley downsized the flagging paper without offering any coherent strategy for what it would become.

But with the 2009 sale, the family-owned paper also became just another distressed asset waiting to be rehabbed and flipped. Unlike Copley, whose family name was synonymous with the Union-Tribune, Platinum’s identity wasn’t defined by the paper. The Union-Tribune’s new top leaders weren’t local. The conservative editorial page softened.

Now the newspaper is again owned by a man with a clear identity and politics. Manchester is easier to label: Waterfront developer. Downtown hotelier. Gay marriage opponent. Tony Perry, the Los Angeles Times’ longtime San Diego bureau chief, described Manchester as “a minor league Donald Trump.”

“He enjoys the game,” Perry said. In any deal, “he enjoys the negotiating and manipulating and dreaming about what it could be.”

He also thrusts the Union-Tribune’s newsroom into what is an awkward position for any newspaper. It will have to report on its master. Manchester is a newsmaker. Look no farther than the newspaper’s website Wednesday night, just hours before the sale was announced. Two of its top stories online were about Manchester. One about his Del Mar resort hotel earning five stars, another about his $1.3 billion development planned on Navy property downtown.

Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, said he welcomed the sale to Manchester, whom he described as “a brilliant guy.”

“Anybody who can get something built in San Diego has to be one of the higher primates, because it’s so hard to get anything done in this city,” Nelson said. “He’s a smart guy. Could it be any worse than Platinum? Probably not. There’s a part of me that says: ‘Let’s see what he can do with this paper and whether he can save it.’ I’m willing to let him give it a try.”

Manchester has been a polarizing figure, one known for his brash negotiations and controversial politics. He sponsored a 1994 effort that sought to move the city’s international airport off the waterfront and to the Marine base at Miramar. The $125,000 he donated to the 2008 initiative to ban gay marriage in California attracted a high-profile boycott of his local hotels. His stand on marriage drew attention to his own divorce a year later.

“He has a well-earned reputation for being a small-minded, resentful, mean-spirited man,” said Fred Sainz, the former spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders. “And those are not the character traits you want in the publisher of your newspaper. It’s going to be hard to believe the editorial positions of the newspaper were arrived at in a thoughtful and unbiased manner.”

Sainz said he thought the community needed to stage an intervention. “It’s putting way too much power in the hands of one person with a multitude of agendas,” he said.

Across San Diego, the sale prompted speculation about what was in store for the newspaper’s politics and what was once an influential conservative editorial page. But Perry, the L.A. Times bureau chief, said whatever Manchester’s politics (he’s a conservative who has supported Mitt Romney), the editorial page would lack the influence it once had.

“The days when people could use that to shape public events is pretty much gone,” Perry said. “If anyone thinks they can buy it and become the king of Siam, they’ll find out to their chagrin that it won’t happen.”

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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Rob Davis

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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