Alternative, Web media press improvement upon San Diego’s conservative print dinosaur

I like to think that most people in San Diego read the Union-Tribune grudgingly. They ought to.

Long before I became an intern for one of its competitors, the lack of passionate journalism in the U-T was clear to me from what a chore most of its pages were (and are) to read. With a news section that’s mostly wire stories, and a conservative outlook that often seems to cast any controversy in a clumsy dialectic, the paper has never had a national reputation for great reporting. It has certainly never won a Pulitzer.

When San Diego was making the series of disastrous decisions that have made the city finances suffer from their current malaise, the U-T was reporting on City Hall only minimally.

But these days, something is happening at the U-T. Slowly but surely, it is getting better.

Blame it on competition. Not from TV — did you think this was England? — but from other print sources. CityBeat, the Reader and, of course,, a nonprofit local news Web site launched in February. It was as an intern for them last summer that I was shoved into San Diego politics.

And having another source of sharp reporting on City Hall — the bread and butter of Voice’s daily content — has made quite a difference, both for voters and followers of local politics and for the major local print institution, who suddenly faces another dog on a big-deal beat.

Voice is a very long way from having the readership, presence or crispness of the U-T. Economically, there’s no competition: the U-T’s non-news sections are not so bad, and most people who get the paper just read those, anyway. But in the meat-and-potatoes reporting arena, Voice is often giving the U-T a serious run for its money by telling stories that an entrenched conservative mainstay cannot.

Take the much-discussed City Council meetings. Whereas the U-T usually reports merely the outcome of the marathon cynicism-breeding torture sessions, Voice writers have written freely about the feel and mood of the room, adding colorful details of quintessentially colorful local politicians like City Attorney Mike Aguirre. It’s a different style of reporting, one that seems to jibe better with today’s blogger-friendly media consumers than the old hard-news straightjacket.

But the U-T’s biggest problem historically isn’t writing quality: It’s that its publishers’ conservative outlook has directly influenced what the paper would print on both its news and opinion pages. Republican politicians like wet noodle ex-mayor Dick Murphy (and, dare I say, Jerry Sanders?) can still count on the paper for a soft account of any slip-ups, and that’s actually an improvement over the past. According to two articles run by the Los Angeles Times earlier this month on the paper’s publisher and its future, the still-staunchly-rightist paper has recently stepped out of the Republican back pocket it was once buried in.

To some extent, anyway. While the news pages of the U-T doggedly covered the Duke Cunningham scandal (in which the local Republican Congressman was found to have personal financial ties with a defense contractor he worked with), and seems to be improving its work on the mayoral race, its impartiality has not been continued on the opinion pages.

Columnist James Goldsborough, for years one of the only liberal voices on the U-T’s masthead, wrote a column last year about the Iraq war that publisher David Copley didn’t like. Copley killed it, flat out. So Goldsborough immediately retired.

Arguably the father of San Diego journalism, Neil Morgan was a columnist and editor at the Evening Tribune, once one of San Diego’s two papers, for 50 years. When the Union and the Tribune merged in 1992, Morgan continued as a columnist until he was fired in 2004.

Morgan went on to help found Voice of San Diego, for which Goldsborough now writes a monthly column. His last, entitled, “Union-Tribune still failing San Diego,” gives a more weighty account of the paper’s infirmities than I can.

“Its opinion pages are biased to a degree rarely found in general circulation newspapers today,” Goldsborough wrote. “Union-Tribune editorials, which supported Cunningham for a decade, simply can’t accept that the top-gunner from Rancho Santa Fe, who never met a defense contractor he couldn’t do business with, was on the take.”

So it won’t surprise anyone when the U-T endorses Sanders to be the next mayor of San Diego. They haven’t yet. But what do you think they’re going to do, endorse the activist-environmentalist? The paper that has still never printed an unfriendly word about downtown business interests and only a few about the politicians they own?

Because of its nonprofit status, Voice cannot endorse any candidates. In that arena, the U-T is alone to make itself look foolish — although at this point it’s hard to tell how many unmade minds there are about whom to vote for.

One thing is for sure: with a fresh battery of younger, leaner competition, the U-T is very quickly revealing itself to be the broken record it has been for decades. Its local news pages must stay alive if the paper wishes to keep its audience — especially in times like these — and it appears to have realized that.

Whether its editorial pages will ever unfreeze a bit remains quite uncertain. Rumor has it that Copley, who’s never been particularly enthusiastic about running the newspaper empire his mother handed him (one of America’s last family-run ones), might sell the paper within the next few months. That would probably lead to quite an upheaval at the old U-T. So keep your fingers crossed.