Industry observers weigh impact of U-T San Diego’s entry into local weekly media market

U-T+Community+News%2C+part+of+the+daily+U-T+San+Diego%2C+announced+its+purchase+of+eight+community+newspapers+on+Nov.+1.+%28North+Coast+Current+photo%29

U-T Community News, part of the daily U-T San Diego, announced its purchase of eight community newspapers on Nov. 1. (North Coast Current photo)

Alex Groves

U-T San Diego, the last remaining daily newspaper in San Diego County, recently purchased eight weekly community newspapers from Mainstreet Communications, and experts in the field of media and active journalists are holding their breath to see what the paper will do with its newly claimed acquisitions.

The U-T (formerly The San Diego Union-Tribune) is now in charge of weekly hyperlocal papers across the region, mostly in North County – the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Solana Beach Sun, Del Mar Times, Carmel Valley News, La Jolla Light, Poway News Chieftain, Rancho Bernardo & 4S Ranch News Journal and Ramona Sentinel.

The decision comes a year after the San Diego paper purchased the daily North County Times in Escondido and The Californian in Temecula. Those papers were folded into the U-T, layoffs ensued, and industry observers cried foul when the news entity attempted to claim that coverage in North County and Southwest Riverside County would remain the same or be improved.

Now, as the paper gains greater control of the media market in San Diego County, few competitors remain, and lingering questions continue over what will become of print and digital news media in the region.

For experts in the field of media such as Dean Nelson, a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, it’s too soon to answer such questions. He said that it’s hard to know whether such a purchase will result in a less informed public or a smaller marketplace of ideas because U-T San Diego has only had the weekly papers in its possession for a short time.

“All of that remains to be seen,” Nelson said. “We can speculate as to what the U-T will do, but I don’t find that to be a particularly useful exercise. If those papers operate at a smaller scale or are just absorbed into the broader U-T, then yeah, I think there would be a less informed public because those papers serve a very specific local kind of a purpose.”

Business move

Nelson said he thought the U-T’s decision to purchase the papers was very smart from a business standpoint because smaller weekly papers are often more successful than daily print editions, which have seen circulation declines for most of the past decade.

There are a number of reasons that local weeklies often see financial gains when daily newspapers do not, according to Nelson.

The former Mainstreet Communications newspapers now owned by U-T Community News include the Solana Beach Sun, Del Mar Times, Rancho Santa Fe Review and Carmel Valley News. (North Coast Current photo)
The former Mainstreet Communications newspapers now owned by U-T Community News include the Solana Beach Sun,
Del Mar Times, Rancho Santa Fe Review and Carmel Valley News. (North Coast Current photo)

“Some of them (weekly papers) are making significant profit,” he said. “And the reason for that is they’ve stayed local, they’ve stayed connected to their audiences and they haven’t tried to cover the war in Afghanistan. They’re covering the things in their neighborhoods.”

Nelson said he hopes the U-T will commit to doing good journalism by letting the weekly papers continue to do what they do best: cover the issues that impact their surrounding area.

Other industry observers such as San Diego Reader’s Don Bauder remain less convinced that only time will tell how the U-T will handle stewardship of the papers.

Bauder is a former financial editor and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune and has been an outspoken critic of U-T owner Douglas Manchester and the paper’s CEO, John Lynch.

Political impacts

Bauder said that since being purchased by Manchester, the paper has become increasingly conservative and has advocated for projects that Manchester would benefit from – specifically, the paper has advocated for downtown building projects and pushed for Manchester’s choice of candidate, Carl DeMaio, during the last mayoral election.

It’s this kind of editorially fueled journalism that Bauder said he expects to see in the eight weeklies now that they are under the control of U-T San Diego.

“I would say that given what he (Manchester) did at the Union-Tribune and North County Times, he will continue to use newspapers for his own propaganda purposes,” Bauder said. “And I think you can see that coming based on what he did with the U-T, with front page editorials for his candidate for mayor.”

The San Diego Reader contributor said that one of the primary difficulties the U-T is creating for itself is that it is failing to recognize the changing demographics of San Diego.

Although the county still remains almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the city of San Diego has a majority of Democrats. This changing demographic of voters means that a primarily conservative paper that only promotes conservative views is not bound to be as successful as it once was, according to Bauder.

“What he’s doing (Manchester), is he’s planning the news,” he said. “And a lot of people don’t like that, and I do think that accounts for some of the loss of circulation that the paper has had.”

Former North County Times editor Kent Davy said he does not believe that the purchase of weeklies will extend any type of propaganda on Manchester’s part. Davy said that because most weekly papers specialize in hyperlocal news coverage and local sports, there isn’t a lot of room to promote an ideological point of view.

Hyperlocal news

“A typical weekly is not a particularly valuable tool for pushing broad-based agendas like Bauder is suggesting with his comments,” Davy said. “If you look at the content of a weekly, what its function is, is to pull together and push back out to its readers the community news aspect.”

Davy did say that in recent years U-T San Diego has shifted away from community news, which the weekly papers specialize in.

“If you look at the arch of the U-T content since the North County Times purchase, there has been a move away from deeper zoning, away from the production of a lot of community-specific content to the extent that they’ve kind of altered their model,” he said.

By including weekly papers in its business model, U-T San Diego can effectively return some of the local news coverage it has been missing, according to Davy.

“All of a sudden you create another vehicle for creating that stuff,” he said.

Some observers, like Bauder, have suggested that the U-T’s purchase has pushed it further toward monopoly, with very few competitors left.

Shift in competition

There are certainly fewer independently owned community news outlets than there were – North Coast Current, The Coast News and The Paper are some of the few remaining media entities in North County that have remained independent in spite of continued industry pressures.

Jim Kydd, publisher of The Coast News Group, is not sure what to make of the recent buyouts and changes in North County news but said there are some positives to the recent restructurings.

“On the plus side for us, the U-T seems to be neglecting coverage previously provided by the recently purchased North County Times,” Kydd said via email. “This has helped us and we are moving to provide more coverage and circulation in these areas.”

Although many believe that U-T San Diego is starting to slowly swallow up the market, others point to a number of new publications in North County that have come to stake their claim.

OsideNews, an online news site for Oceanside, and the Seaside Courier, a new newspaper to be based out of Encinitas, are just some of the newcomers set to diversify journalism once again.

Seaside Courier, part of the Mission Publishing Group – which publishes papers in metropolitan San Diego and East County – makes a clear statement about its focus on hyperlocal news coverage in the “About Us” section if its website:

“Mission Publishing Group offers hyper-local news with a combined circulation among our four newspapers exceeding 100,000 printed copies and over 200,000 print and e-readers each month.”

Alex Groves is a freelance writer in the region