When Patrick Soon-Shiong, Los Angeles’ richest man, bought the San Diego Union-Tribune as part of a package with the Los Angeles Times, he came to speak to anxious and excited employees at the U-T’s headquarters.
“You now have stability,” Soon-Shiong told the 200 people gathered in April 2018. He promised to invest in the U-T “and he said the 150-year-old San Diego publication will not be the ignored stepchild of the Los Angeles Times,” as the paper itself reported that day.
That was not exactly true. Soon-Shiong never again seemed to pay much attention to the U-T. He went on a frenzy of investment in the LA Times, though, hiring many new reporters and producers. He bought the LA Times a new headquarters and launched many new products. He and his family faced both the usual drama of running a newsroom at the LA Times (accusations of meddling too much in editorial perspectives) and the unusual (vast painful reckoning about the paper’s history and diversity).
But he didn’t show any interest in San Diego, its politics, its decisions, its economy – nothing. He soon made it known he would be happy to sell the paper. He discussed handing it over to a nonprofit. He discussed even giving it to a university.
All the while, the paper inched closer to the cliff.
What is the cliff, exactly? I don’t have any special access to the U-T’s financials, but it is marching toward the same cliff most regional newspapers are approaching because advertisers simply have much more effective platforms on which to put their advertisements, and this has led to now almost 20 years of a relatively reliable collapse of annual revenue. The cliff is the moment when newspaper revenues no longer justify the vast cost of printing and distributing the paper. They will have to cut that cost and cease printing the paper, at least, cease printing it most weekdays.
The problem, though, is that much of their money comes from advertising in the print product. And people who subscribe to the print paper spend a lot on that. So, a big chunk of revenue will evaporate when they eliminate the print product.
What happens then? Is there enough money to sustain a newsroom that provides a genuine public service? So much of what newspapers have done over the last 20 years is delay the arrival of that moment, primarily by lowering the cost of the printing and distributing the paper and eliminating everything else they can.
The challenge is to build a bridge to the other side of it. That means get enough digital subscribers and digital advertisers to sustain a newsroom.
This is what every publisher of journalism – including me – is trying to do. Google, Facebook and the other towers of Silicon Valley won the advertising battle. There will still be some but, to survive and thrive, individuals who value journalism will have to pay for it. In our case, through donations. In the U-T’s, through subscriptions.
The U-T’s Publisher and Editor Jeff Light gave a long interview on this challenge to his own paper to mark the first “print holiday” the paper had taken as a way to acclimate readers to the reality that, someday, it would not print a paper every day. He said the paper was profitable “in the right way.”
The daily newspaper print version that goes out to homes is high profit but high cost. The future, as Light saw it, is to hit 100,000 digital subscribers. That’s the bridge to the other side of the cliff. And he exuded confidence that he could build that bridge, in part because of Soon-Shiong.
“So there are some newspaper companies that are sort of dissolving the franchise as they go forward and harvesting money out of the business to send profits to their owners. That’s not what’s going on in San Diego,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have a strong staff and really enlightened ownership.”
That enlightened ownership has now sold the newspaper to MediaNews Group and its parent corporation, Alden Global Capital, a company The Atlantic called “a secretive hedge fund … gutting newspapers.” It’s probably not fair to describe Alden as a “chop shop” as one of the U-T’s reporters did when reacting to the news of the sale, but if you were compiling a list of companies that are “harvesting money out of the business to send profits to their owners” you would probably put Alden at the top of that list.
And that should be the real concern. It’s not that Alden is some kind of special monster. Newspaper owners have been, at times, terrible people. When the Copley family sold the paper to a private equity firm in 2009, Light came aboard as editor-in-chief and ruthless cuts brought the paper stability — enough so that its next steward, developer Doug Manchester, was able to turn a nice profit when he sold it, again, to a faceless corporation.
The real tragedy is that Soon-Shiong had promised to shepherd the paper through this historic transition citing its vital role in local democracy. To avoid plummeting off the cliff, the newspaper would need to create stories people were willing to pay to read online. To make that work, Soon-Shiong promised to “increase the journalistic strength in the newsrooms,” he bought.
Perhaps Alden will actually be better at it.
But helping local news transition to online in a way that sustains effective newsrooms focused on excellence in reporting and public service requires investment and patience. We have lost a major reason to hope for both in San Diego.