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Pause for a Smile

The San Diego Union-Tribune is on the Rocks

by FRANK GREEN

Print media’s decline in the United States can be tracked in microcosm in San Diego, longtime home to one of the country’s most conservative, reactionary dailies.

Local progressives have been watching in bemusement for several years as The San Diego Union-Tribune – once Richard Nixon’s favorite news source – radically chops staff, loses circulation and, more importantly, sees its once-dominant and domineering position as a right-wing political and cultural force in the area fade.

The fall of the U-T, which some newsroom insiders believe is heading for its last press run, would mirror the predicament of other major U.S. dailies long confronted by the ubiquitous Internet and similar burgeoning alternative media, as well as by a dwindling passion for reading among the young.

“My guess is, (the U-T) is barely breaking even, if that,” said a veteran staffer. “Everybody here is looking over their shoulder.”

The turbulence at the U-T commenced in 2006 when the paper announced the first of what would be seven rounds of layoffs and buyouts of newsroom, circulation and other staff (even the cafeteria closed).

Three years later, publisher David Copley, whose rabidly conservative family had monopolized the local newspaper industry and dominated the city’s civic affairs for decades, sold the business to Platinum Equity, a Beverly Hills-based private equity group.

However, Platinum’s involvement has hardly cut the flow of red ink. Daily circulation has dipped in the past three years from 242,705 to 218,614, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

Efforts by Platinum to attract subscribers with a hyper-local emphasis in its news columns have failed to draw readers’ interest, as have circulation promotions which essentially give the paper away. (A U-T booth at a recent home improvement show at the local convention center, for instance, offered new subscribers $10 worth of free Starbucks gift cards for a $10-a-month sub.)

Some observers nevertheless think that Platinum’s plans for the U-T have little to do with keeping it in the black, or even in print.

Indeed, Platinum announced in July that it had hired the investment banking advisory firm Evercare Partners to examine “strategic alternatives” for the U-T – code words to some for finding a buyer.

It would all seem to be business as usual for Platinum, which owns more than 100 companies in such sectors as infotech, telecommunications and real estate. Platinum’s annual aggregate revenue from these firms is $27 billion or so.

The company has a reputation for acquiring distressed properties like the U-T at bargain rates, then quickly turning them around for sale at a tidy profit.

Potential U-T suitors, according to the newsroom rumor mill, include Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Tribune Co. and local hotel magnate Doug Manchester.

Murdoch’s interest in the U-T seems unlikely, however, since he would face a recalcitrant News Corp. board still fuming over this summer’s newspaper hacking scandal in the United Kingdom. The board would also seemingly balk at extending the company’s already substantial involvement in the shrinking newspaper industry, however enthusiastic Murdoch might be for supplementing his print portfolio.

Still other speculation has the paper eventually merging with various large regional newspaper properties (the Orange County Register, even the Los Angeles Times) to form one pervasive Southern California daily.

Such a consolidation could be operated with a fraction of current newsroom staffs and costs.

But at least one U-T editor thinks Platinum will instead soon simply stop printing the paper altogether – “it’s essentially worthless now,” the editor said – and sell the real estate on which the paper’s editorial offices and printing press are situated in the lush commercial hub of San Diego’s Mission Valley.

The editor noted that Platinum paid between $40 million and $50 million for virtually all of the U-T’s assets in the 2009 deal, even though the U-T’s headquarters alone reportedly sits on land assessed at about $90 million.

Progressives seemingly would hail the demise of the once-pervasive U-T, which for years has maintained a stridently right-wing sensibility in its opinion pages and news columns alike.

Among the lowlights:

- Well into the 1970s, U-T publisher James Copley routinely lent his political writers gratis to the successful mayoral, gubernatorial and senate campaigns of Pete Wilson, as well as numerous other Republican politicos. The late Herbert Klein, for example, worked alternately for years as an editor at the newspaper and a mouthpiece for GOP candidates, all the while collecting a Copley paycheck. Klein ultimately served as communications director for Nixon, who often referred to the Union as his favorite newspaper.

- In the late-1960s, a memo issued from the publisher’s office advised editors to avoid running photos of black people on section fronts. The policy remained in force, if unofficially, into the mid-1970s.

- During the same period, The San Diego Union (which later merged with its sister publication the Evening Tribune to form the Union-Tribune) targeted the late Marxist philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse in conjunction with threats and harassment by the Secret Army Organization, a militant right-wing vigilante group made up of San Diego Police officers and military veterans. Marcuse, who was teaching at UC San Diego at the time, often was wrongly characterized in Union news columns and editorial cartoons as a dangerous Soviet agent promoting violent revolution in the U.S. Union executives routinely bragged that the Marcuse campaign was designed to run him out of town, if not kill him.

- The vending machines of alternative newspapers like the O.B. Rag, the San Diego Door and the San Diego Free Press were routinely plucked off the streets by Union circulation drivers in the late-1960s at the behest of Victor Krulak, an executive in the U-T publishing office. (Krulak had earlier served as President John Kennedy’s counterinsurgency expert in Vietnam.)

Through it all, the newspaper used its news columns to pimp for conservative candidates and issues near to the heart of the Copley family, while downplaying or completely ignoring alternative progressive voices.

This stifling pro-business, pro-military stance has hardly diminished in the new century.

For instance, the U-T unwaveringly backed the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, including giving ad nauseum support for George W. Bush’s premise that Iraq was a repository for so-called weapons of mass destruction.

The intimate nature of the long Copley-GOP relationship could until recently be seen in the U-T executive offices, where a large photograph of David Copley, former editor Karin Winner and Bush – all three of them in the throes of laughter – had been prominently displayed for years.

A cursory read of Thursday’s U-T indicates that little has changed under Platinum’s stewardship.

The op-ed page features a Q&A with Mayor Jerry Sanders and other business leaders griping about how difficult it has been to find money to build a new football stadium for the Chargers, while the lead piece in the local section trumpets the police union’s endorsement of Republican newcomer Nathan Fletcher against liberal Democrat Bob Filner in the local mayoral race.

Of course, all of this debate about the U-T’s pernicious influence through the years may soon be relegated to the stacks.

A Web site dedicated to U-T retirees carried still a fresh newsroom rumor Thursday that the paper is being sold and that the transaction with a private buyer is in escrow.

Herbert Marcuse is smiling somewhere.

FRANK GREEN is a veteran journalist and lives in the San Diego area. He can be reached at fjkbgreen@cox.net