“Unless he changes his position, Jeff Light is going to be known as Jeff Darkness.” Thus speaks Sandra Dijkstra, a nationally known literary agent in Del Mar, talking about the new editor of the Union-Tribune. The new management recently got rid of more than 30 editors and reporters and hired a bunch of Light’s former cronies at the Orange County Register.
The net effect is a significant reduction of editorial talent, following on the heels of previous head-choppings. The newspaper is reorganizing the newsroom as it shifts emphasis from the ink-and-paper version to the online edition.
The visual arts and literary communities in San Diego are aroused. “I am canceling my subscription, and I believe there will be a tidal wave of cancellations,” says Dijkstra.
The latest reorganization “is a swipe at the intellectual community in San Diego,” says Mark Quint, of the Quint Contemporary Art Gallery in San Diego.
One of the moves that incurred the wrath of the arts/literary world was the firing of Bob Pincus, who was art critic for 25 years and also book editor for 2 years. “Bob has a national reputation, and he deserves a lot of the credit for the maturation of the art and museum world here in San Diego,” says Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “He is the gold standard for arts criticism — and he has said some terrible things about my museum.”
People in both the arts and literary worlds complained to Light. He told them that coverage of visual arts may actually increase in the Sunday arts section but that coverage of books — except on the local scene — would decrease. But there is widespread skepticism that visual arts coverage will increase. “All the visual arts people are very disturbed,” says Reesey Shaw, director of the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas.
Says Dijkstra, “The Union-Tribune will no longer be able to participate in the national conversation on books, except as it is local. This is a narrow, parochial, provincial conception of a role of a community newspaper.”
Prior to Light’s arrival, the U-T stirred up a hornet’s nest by firing movie reviewer David Elliott and initially not replacing him. “The studios wanted more of a critical presence in the U-T, and it hired a part-time critic,” says Scott Marks, a local movie critic.
Just as importantly, San Diegans are worried that by eliminating a layer of copy editors, hiring younger people to work at low salaries, and jettisoning veterans, the paper will suffer from typos, bad grammar, factual errors, and prolix, disorganized composition. To facilitate the online transformation, Light brought in many with backgrounds in graphics; he seems to have forgotten that online publications are also text-intensive. As he brought in bodies from Orange County and elsewhere, he escalated the firings of those with San Diego backgrounds. Many San Diegans fear that the U-T will have too many chiefs who don’t know San Diego and too few Indians who do.
I put some of these questions to Light via an email exchange. He says that he will not have entry-level reporters covering the visual arts. He intends to use freelancers more often. On “topics where we need deep expertise on an occasional or weekly basis, I believe much of that will move to freelance,” he says.
Then he makes an interesting observation: “The implication here is that the expert voices in certain areas may well reside at our universities or our public institutions.” I would like to make my own observation on that: I probably quote as many academics as any San Diego writer. The ones I quote are mainly economists. But I interview them and coax them into talking English. Academics are not accustomed to writing for broad audiences. They get their promotions and jollies writing for very narrow audiences in an esoteric patois. If he is going to publish freelance essays from academics, he will need more — not fewer — editors.
I side with Davies: “Can they hire somebody better than Pincus? No. They could hire four people and the coverage wouldn’t be as good.”
Light says he wants to “foster and reward creativity in things like poetry and the visual arts.” However, “You will not see a return to the big book section the U-T once had.” Professors and other readers might do reviews, he says. (The U-T always had outsiders doing many of the book reviews.)
“Movie reviews will continue to be freelanced,” says Light, although he wouldn’t mind printing movie criticism from staff members.
What about the evisceration of the copy desk — the elimination of a layer of editors? Is he worried about increasing sloppiness? “We’re taking out layers of checking, so I think it makes sense to say there is some risk,” he allows. “If our people don’t do a quality job at the start of the process, there will be fewer people to catch their mistakes. But I am perfectly comfortable with the process we will follow…we have professional editors handling the copy that goes online and two more layers of editors going through most everything before it gets into print.” (Light would be well advised to speak with former staffers, who are griping about mistakes they find now and could also warn him about copy coming in from young reporters.)
As to the complaint that he has brought in too many who worked with him at the Orange County Register, Light admits, “I have brought in some new people whom I have crossed paths with over the years.” He notes that many of the people did not come directly from the Register, although they had worked there. “I do think there is a downside to bringing in new people,” he says. “It causes disruption. You lose some local knowledge.” But the former colleagues he recruited “are stars in their disciplines,” he says.
Finally, I asked him a key question. Before the layoffs, employees had two meetings with top managers. One of the managers stated that the U-T’s revenue was exceeding expectations. One employee interpreted that to mean that the newspaper is now making money.