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John Lynch, who became CEO of the U-T San Diego late last year, set a tone for the newspaper’s direction under its new ownership before the sale was even final.

On the day downtown hotelier Doug Manchester struck a deal to buy the paper for about $110 million, Lynch told me that he wanted its sports page to advocate for a new downtown Chargers stadium and call out opponents as “obstructionists.”

Since Lynch has taken the reins, his mark on the newspaper has been clear. The U-T has bullied the Unified Port of San Diego in its news and opinion pages for opposing a massive waterfront development the newspaper proposed downtown.

The paper has become more partisan, provocative and petulant, drawing the attention of media analysts who say it’s an important national case study to see whether ideologues like Manchester are solely interested in the newspaper industry because they can use it for their personal political gain.

The latest reinforcement of that narrative came from the San Diego Reader’s revelation Wednesday that Lynch had obliquely threatened to use newspaper coverage in a dispute with the city over a $1,000 fine the U-T faced for hanging a banner from its Mission Valley headquarters.

Emails the Reader obtained between Lynch and Councilman Kevin Faulconer’s office focused on two issues. Lynch didn’t want to remove the banner. And he wanted to meet with Faulconer to discuss a digital sign the U-T wants to build on its headquarters.

While Faulconer’s chief of staff, Katie Hansen, tried to set up a meeting about the new sign, she told Lynch that the banner had to be removed or the U-T would face a $1,000 fine. Lynch acquiesced. But he didn’t sound happy. He wrote:

I have instructed that the banner to be taken down. If it weren’t for the digital sign pending approval, I would instruct our folks to run a piece on how this is so reflective of this city being anti-business.

We are fighting to keep this business vital and if it were ever to go away, there would be 700 San Diego jobs that go with it.

As I quickly noted on Twitter:

When Doug Manchester bought the Union-Tribune, we asked: Would he use it as bullhorn or bludgeon? Evidence continues piling up for bludgeon.

— Rob Davis (@robwdavis) May 23, 2012

It’s also evidence that Lynch is on unfamiliar ground at the newspaper’s helm. Months ago, he acknowledged that he was wrong to say he’d have sports reporters call out football stadium opponents. He told me his background was radio, where being provocative was vital. But the latest incident shows a basic lack of understanding between what’s acceptable for newspapers (using the institution to advocate for the public good) and unacceptable (using it to advocate for the ownership’s personal benefit).

I emailed Lynch for comment. He said he hadn’t seen the Reader’s story. So I sent it to him.

He responded: “Sounds like a major story, critical breaking news!”

I pushed for more. In follow-up emails, Lynch said he’d made the comments to Faulconer, a friend, in jest. (The threat was made to the councilman’s chief-of-staff.)

“No threat, it is a statement of fact that our City is anti-business,” he wrote. “We will do everything we can to motivate all in our City to address an overall anti-business approach and atmosphere.

“However, I think you are trying to blow up something that no one will care about. Most will agree, that it is indicative of an anti-business pervasiveness. I didn’t even know we had a banner hanging that was a violation of anything…”

Some cared about Lynch’s email threat. Here’s some of the reaction from Twitter.

Double wow @vosdscott sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/news-t…

— Joanne Faryon (@JoanneFaryon) May 23, 2012

@vosdscott That pretty much kills the @utsandiego claim of journalistic independence.

— Benjamin Katz (@MeanestBossEver) May 23, 2012

Am I reading this wrong or is Lynch outright admitting to using UT’s editorials to advance paper’s business interests? sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/news-t…

— Alex Roth (@alexroth3) May 23, 2012

After I questioned whether Lynch’s comments suggested he wanted to influence the paper’s news or opinion pages, this response came:

@ogul @robwdavis @tonymanolatos Does it even matter whether he meant article or editorial?

— Alex Roth (@alexroth3) May 23, 2012

@robwdavis Distinction w/out a difference. Inappropriate either way.

— Alex Roth (@alexroth3) May 23, 2012

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego. 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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