Is San Diego Paper the Future of the Media?

For the past year, the biggest news story in San Diego has been the newspaper.

There's not enough space to recount all of the things that have happened since Doug Manchester assumed ownership of the Union-Tribune.  But it's fair to say that Manchester has offered a different vision of what a newspaper should be than most Californians are accustomed to.

He has said he wants the papers to be unabashedly positive and relentlessly pro-military and pro-business and pro-development, and to take sides in disputes, such as whether the football Chargers should get a new stadium. (He's for it, and those journalists who aren't willing to be for it are not welcome at the U-T).

The result has been staff changes, and lots of controversy, about whether his paper has lived up to the type of boosterism he's promised. But he's not stopping. He's just purchased the North County Times as well.

In journalism circles, Manchester is seen as an outlier. But is he? Californians saw something not dissimilar a few years back when Wendy McCaw took over the Santa Barbara News-Press.

And cheerleading, boosterish, less-than-critical newspapering is a long American, and California tradition. The Los Angeles Times was this kind of paper for much of its history. And there are reasons to believe that Manchester-style newspapering is going to make a big comeback.

Those reasons are many.

But the short version is that newspapers nowadays are a bad business by themselves. So people who own them are likely to own them for reasons than being in a good business. They may want newspapers that serve their larger business or ideological interests, or cheerlead for favored causes. If a newspaper gives you that, the bad economics of the business make more sense.

What's more, the audience may be ready for this kind of journalism.

Surveys show that engaged citizens are more partisan and ideological than in the post-war era. They have less interest in papers that try to find the dispassionate middle. And one of the most often-aired complaints about media is that they are too negative, which bolsters the case for boosterism.

The appreciation for the role of the press as watchdog is not as deep and wide as we journalists would like to believe. Bottom line: the incentives are in place for more Manchesters.

But that leaves a very basic question for those of us who believe that government and powerful people and interests need to be watched, and that society needs the power of an independent press: what the heck do we do now?

I don't know. But to get an answer, your lead blogger is moderating a discussion of this question on Monday night in, yes, San Diego. The event, at the San Diego Museum of Art, runs just over an hour and is free and open to the public.

It features people who are trying to figure out what the future might be:  Scott Lewis, who leads the Voice of San Diego, which has embraced the Internet and new techniques in the service of old-fashioned accountability reporting; a documentary filmmaker named Bernardo Ruiz, director of a film about Zeta, a Tijuana magazine whose journalists have paid a heavy price for covering the cartels; and journalist Carrie Lozano of PBS and UC Berkeley, who is an expert in how media and citizens can collaborate to investigate and hold power accountable.

Is it nonprofit journalistic organizations that will fill the void left by Manchester-style newspapers? Or Internet-based citizen collaboratives? Or will reporters find ways to do journalism from within other institutions -- unions, corporations or even government? Does the NPR-style model of membership funding work? Or do newspapers and TV stations that were once competitors band together to share resources to get the job done?

I hope to see Prop Zero readers there who may have their own answers to these questions. Or even better questions.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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