New U-T Boss: ‘You Change Now or You Die’

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someone

(Courtesy of The Voice of San Diego.org)

Hotelier Doug Manchester’s behavior in the board room is well-documented: He’s brash, bold, confrontational.

But across the region Thursday, one question hovered over the announcement that Manchester is the new owner of The San Diego Union-Tribune, which he said he purchased for more than $110 million. What happens when that brash, bold, confrontational man steps into the newsroom of the region’s largest newspaper?

John Lynch, the former local radio executive who will become the newspaper’s new president and CEO, offered a preview Thursday night of that future. Some parts of the paper may stay the same. Lynch and Manchester want its publisher, Ed Moss, and its editor, Jeff Light, to stay. Lynch said he doesn’t foresee the print product disappearing for at least a decade.

But Lynch said he wants the paper to be pro-business. The sports page to be pro-Chargers stadium. And reporters to become stars.

“It’s news information, but it’s also show biz,” Lynch said. “You get people to tune in and read your site or the paper when there’s an ‘Oh wow’ in the paper.”

He wants that sports page to be an advocate for a new football stadium “and call out those who don’t as obstructionists.”

“To my way of thinking,” Lynch said, “that’s a shovel-ready job for thousands.”

More changes will be evident after the deal closes between Nov. 30 and Dec. 15. Lynch said they want a stronger editorial page and to attract younger readers. Lynch hopes to bring other media into the building. He wants to be a newspaper industry precedent-setter.

“You change now or you die,” Lynch said.

Lynch and Manchester return the newspaper to local ownership after a brief respite. Lynch said their interest was in the newspaper. The 13 acres of property that come with it in Mission Valley are a residual benefit, he said.

We’d like to be a cheerleader for all that’s good about San Diego,” Lynch said. “Our motivation, both of us, was to do something good for San Diego.”

Lynch and Manchester step into a local business that has halted a historic slide. After the newspaper cut about half of its staff between 2006 and 2009, it’s no longer shrinking. Credit its seller, Platinum Equity, a Beverly Hills-based private equity firm, with turning around the paper’s finances. When David Copley sold the newspaper in 2009, it had made only $1 million in 2008. It was on track to lose $8 million in 2009. Two sources familiar with the figures said the paper is now earning about $25 million to $30 million annually before taxes and interest.

Though it made the paper profitable again, Platinum wasn’t a partisan owner. The paper’s once-influential conservative editorial page softened. Lynch said he sees an opportunity there. He wants people to talk about the editorial page. He and Manchester, both politically conservative, want to forge a stronger, better San Diego.

That desire may cross traditional tenets of journalism, where by design reporters have been walled off from outside influence. But Lynch said he expected the paper to be pro-business. And the former sports radio executive said the paper should have “an incredibly strong sports page that supports the Chargers, the Padres, USD, SDSU.”

While he and Manchester will set an editorial direction, Lynch said, he also expects that Manchester will “respect journalistic integrity.”

Since he took the reins as editor, Light has set that direction. He said earlier this year on voiceofsandiego.org‘s radio program that he’s tried to make the paper less doctrinaire and less strident editorially.

“I mean, the world’s a complicated place and I enjoy a diversity of ideas,” he said.

Whether those visions clash is one of the key questions about Manchester as a newspaper owner. He has for years used his wallet as a megaphone. He sponsored a 1994 push to move the international airport from the waterfront to the Marine base at Miramar. He donated $125,000 to the campaign that successfully banned gay marriage in California. He has supported Steve Francis, the businessman who twice lost mayoral elections, and Mitt Romney, who’s running for president.

Now he’s bought a megaphone: The region’s dominant media outlet. Though its circulation has declined in recent years, more than 200,000 subscribers still get the newspaper every day, not counting those who read it online.

Unlike Platinum Equity, the seller of that megaphone, much more is clear about Manchester and his politics. He’s pushing a billion-dollar waterfront development on Navy land downtown. He’s conservative and anti-tax.

Those who know how Manchester operates say his mark on the newspaper will be as distinct as it has been on the downtown waterfront, where he’s built two major hotels.

“Manchester has the reputation for his fingerprints being all over everything,” said Fred Sainz, a former spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders. “There is no doubt that he will be involved at every decision in terms of what gets covered, the way it gets covered, what stories go on what pages.”

Scott Barnett, the school board trustee, worked for Manchester for two brief weeks in 2003. Manchester had just hired Barnett to lead a taxpayer advocacy group. But when Barnett opposed the recall effort against Gray Davis, he said he got a call from Manchester, a friend of Darrell Issa, a major recall backer and North County congressman.

Manchester’s message was clear, Barnett recalled: Stop your opposition or we’re done.

And they were. Now, as a public official, Barnett knows he’ll now have to convince the new, anti-tax newspaper owner of the need for a tax hike he’s pitching to help San Diego Unified. On Thursday, thinking about the challenge ahead, Barnett recalled words Manchester spoke to him years ago: I’m quick to anger, but quick to forgive.

“It wasn’t personal,” Barnett said of their differences in 2003.

“Hopefully he’s forgiven me for that.”

About Guest Writer