Mission Valley Makeover
The San Diego Union-Tribune sheds its once-stodgy image
By Bob Page
To borrow a tag coined for The New York Times, there’s new life in the old gray lady of Mission Valley, and the two charged with throwing dynamite at 83 years of Copley ownership are Ed Moss, the publisher, and editor Jeff Light.
Moss came when Platinum Equity, owned by a group of savvy Beverly Hills investment bankers, saw an enormous opportunity to pluck off a major American daily newspaper at what some considered to be a give-away price, even in a recessionary economy.
Prior to arriving at the helm of the U-T in 2009, Moss had served as president and publisher of newspaper companies in California, Michigan, Ohio, Louisiana and Pennsylvania.
What Platinum paid for the U-T is anyone’s guess, but most newspaper analysts believe that the purchase price paid two years ago was between $35 million and $50 million, far short of the $65 million valuation put on the U-T’s five-story office building and production plant in 2004 around the time of Helen Copley’s death. Throw in three other parcels of real estate in San Diego, Carlsbad and San Marcos, which have now been spun off, and for whatever the price that was paid, one senses that Platinum made a smart acquisition.
The daily newspaper business is at the height of its challenges, what with falling circulation numbers, news now available 24/7 across more platforms than could have even been imagined 10 or even five years ago and advertisers with a plethora of options.
The U-T’s circulation has fallen to 224,000 daily and 310,000 Sunday but Moss doesn’t seem overly concerned. “We’ve pruned some circulation off our books and raised our circulation price in order to get a better balance between advertising and circulation revenues.”
Moss said they made a lot of tough decisions right off the bat, saying that his first priority was to “get the size of the company to match the revenues which were being generated. It wasn’t like we were going to make reductions and expect less. In fact, we went the other way. We’re going to make reductions and expect more.”
In a long ranging interview with SD METRO Magazine, both Moss and Light were relaxed and optimistic and they appear to have absolutely no doubts about the Union-Tribune being back on what they preserve to be the right track. They are supremely confident.
“Jeff and I like to call it the ‘San Diego Experiment,’ said Moss. “We phrase it that way when we recruit people. We tell them that you can come in here and you can really build your own dynamics and help us build a new model for the newspaper industry. We can do it quickly and we have tremendous support from our ownership to do that.”
Moss quickly dispatched most of the Copley management team within his first 90 days on the job by hiring seven new vice presidents for the various operational components.
Light arrived later, but no one has been charged with more responsibility for changing the image, the editorial direction and how the U-T is viewed across the various publics that it serves than its new editor.
When asked what impressed him the most about Light, Moss said, “His energy, his thinking outside of what is traditional newspaper thinking for an editor, his background in interactive, his overall approach to the business and being able to bring high-quality talent to the place, and his willingness to turn the place upside down.”
Light grew up in a newspaper family in Buffalo, N.Y., where his dad was the much-revered editor of the Buffalo News. He studied poetry and creative writing at Brown University and has an MBA from UC Irvine.
Light’s impact on the U-T has been immediate. As part of the overall content strategy, he said, “our effectiveness in both investigations and in-depth reports were early priorities.”
He launched Watchdog, an investigative unit inside the U-T newsroom, and has joined forces with the Orange County Register and California Health Report to form State Budget Watch, a project designed to give readers a deeper understanding of the scope, impact and reasons behind California’s fiscal problems.
Their research told them, Light said, that readers wanted information “to hold government, civic and business leaders accountable” as a top priority.
“People did not think we were doing a first-rate job of that. We also asked people what they would rather read — in-depth stories on a few subjects or shorter stories covering more subjects. The result was 50-50, so we built our design around a high volume of short daily reports on key topics, along with a few in-depth pieces in news and business sections,” Light said.
He is also working on the way the newspaper does editorials. He said he likes the idea of having a diverse group of thinkers rather than a small editorial board. “We have a project in the works to bring more people and perspectives into that process. I suspect that this will be the sort of thing that people will notice,” said Light.
When asked how he thought the community viewed the U-T’s political leanings, Moss said, “obviously there was a legacy here, certainly that Jeff and I are addressing and dealing with an image that was very Republican, very conservative. You could predict the position the Union-Tribune in every area and so, yes, we heard a lot of that and what we have tried to do and we’re still very much in the working stages of it, is to make clear to our readership that we don’t have a specific political position.”
Moss and Light see their roles as helping to build a better San Diego, that there isn’t one answer and that they will not trap themselves, as the Copleys seemed to do, to blindly follow the 40 key leaders who have basically run the city for years. “We want to hear them and we want to listen and if they have a good point, we’re going to follow them, but at the same time we want to hear many other voices as well,” said Light.
In the works is a project that is coming out in the next month or so where Light is building a key interview editorial forum that would form part of the wellsprings of ideas that will form the paper’s editorial basis. They have identified a starting group of people who will be the pioneers in helping them build the process, folks from all corners of San Diego — Republicans, Democrats and Independents. “Really not the usual list of people that you would expect to see,” Light said.
“What we want to do is to create a forum for constructive debate where we play the role of good listener and bring sort of an environment of quality conversation and quality information as opposed to doctrinaire engineering of what should happen in San Diego. What we’re interested in is how can we help the great voices of San Diego be heard.”
The newsroom that the editor is building “is a demanding environment requiring our people to communicate with a digital audience, to generate news on topics every day and to build longer pieces every week,” said Light. “From a journalism point of view, we are talking about turning all of us into triathletes. Even if you’re in pretty good shape, you can’t just jump in and run a triathlon, and if you do, you’re going to feel it. That’s the situation we’re in — all of a sudden, we are all running the triathlon. We’re feeling some sore muscles but we’re getting much stronger and much better, so our journalists are becoming more highly conditioned — faster, more disciplined, multi-talented. It’s not an easy job. We have lots of work to do in-house.”
The culture of the Union-Tribune, Moss said, is what surprised him the most upon arrival — “how slow things were to move,” adding that this also surprised him about San Diego as well.
“In terms of decision-making in the city, in terms of being able to get things done, seemed to take a really long time and I think the newspaper culture reflected the same mentality,” Moss said. He said he felt a great need to “really change the way we did business from top to bottom and it really started with the need to bring in new leadership at every level of the organization and quickly.”
“This is the most unique, best situation I’ve ever been in my 34 years in this business,” Moss said. “San Diego is a world-class city and we want to see strong economic growth here. We are very pro-economic growth and we’re very pro-business because we believe a great city needs to have a strong, growing economy. It needs to have new and strong businesses coming here as well as strong tourism. We want to build off of that and to support it.”
Moss ticked off what he called a number of basic, fundamental precepts the company believes in — coverage of not just the city of San Diego but the entire region, including Baja California. They do not want to lose sight of the fact that 31 percent of the overall San Diego-Baja market is Hispanic, he said.
The Union-Tribune is now profitable, Moss said, citing “an advertising performance that for the past six months has been the best. We see how newspapers in other major markets are performing and our performance has been better than every one of them. I don’t think that there is another newspaper in the country that can say that.”
But satisfied, he is not, saying that there still is a long way to go as their focus remains on the core business, although their transactional business is helping them grow their revenues significantly.
“The Daily Deal,” the partnership between the U-T and a slew of advertisers that appears on Page 1’s top left-hand column, is “making significant profit” for the newspaper and Moss expects that it will turn into a multi-million-dollar business for them.
Their marketing campaign of “more than 1 million readers weekly” is helping them get their story out, “that it is an acknowledgement of how strong our media company is in the marketplace and the fact that we reach as many people as we do,” said Moss.
Moss credits Mark Ficarra, the vice president for sales and marketing, for aggressively developing strong partnerships with different industry groups, saying he wasn’t sure that had been done before. “Mark has developed strong partnerships with the San Diego Building Industry Association, Realtors and auto dealer associations. What we have made clear here is that we’re open for business, we’re willing to work with you and that we’re no longer a stodgy old company,” said Moss.
In the good old days, as Moss describes what he believed was the Copley attitude and the newspaper industry in general, “you just opened your doors and the money came in. We were guilty of not working closely with our advertisers but our mindset is different now.”
The Union-Tribune also is getting into different businesses. One suspects that having seen how successful the San Diego Business Journal appears to be in sponsoring event after event, Moss has decided to jump in with both feet. He cited the Successful Aging Expo at the Town & Country Hotel in Mission Valley as example. “We’re doing all we can to get our brand recognition out there as Union-Tribune Media, which includes the newspaper, Sign On San Diego and Enlace.”
The emperor’s clothes have been shattered and the old gray lady of Mission Valley is no more. It’s a new kid on the journalism streets of San Diego and one might suggest that it was long overdue in coming.