Though Doug Manchester's U-T San Diego has yet to report it, the biggest threat to keeping the Chargers in town may turn out to be Manchester's current effort to sell the paper to the owners of the Los Angeles Times.
As previously noted here, word circulating in what remains of the world of big daily newspapers has it that the voluble Manchester wants to unload the once-proud Republican organ, formerly known as the Union-Tribune, to Chicago-based Tribune Publishing.
"While the acquisition could have closed as early as today,” reported media maven Ken Doctor in a March 3 blog post, “it’s now been held up by a familiar concern in newspaper property sales: pension obligations.
“U-T San Diego owner Doug Manchester had given Tribune Publishing a short-term exclusivity agreement, as it worked to a completed purchase agreement. That exclusivity is lapsing, as further due diligence is being done and bids reconfigured."
Continued Doctor, "The purchase price would likely be in the range of $80–90 million, with the buyer also assuming the pension obligations of the U-T, estimated at more than $60 million."
So far, no details have emerged about the pension obligations or what the extended due diligence may have discovered, but according to Doctor, Manchester — San Diego's GOP godfather of funding and political spin — wants to dump his journalistic emporium on Tribune as quickly as possible.
That, keen-eyed city hall insiders note, would coincide neatly with the threatened move of the Chargers to points north, thereby creating a lucrative new sports and advertising franchise for the L.A. Times, Tribune's flagship property.
A Times owner running the San Diego paper would be much less likely to favor efforts to force the football team to stay in the city by use of litigation, goes this line of thinking, and might even be willing to throw the new stadium game by baldly promoting untenable proposals, including a billion-dollar-plus taxpayer-funded subsidy for the team's wealthy Spanos family.
Manchester has been plotting to unload the paper for at least a year, say insiders.
The first public word of a possible transfer of ownership came here last September, when Don Bauder broke the story that Point Loma yachtsman and real estate mogul Malin Burnham was organizing a nonprofit corporation to take control of the paper with Manchester's blessing, depending on how the deal was done for his benefit, tax-wise.
Burnham's move is seen in some circles as a way for wealthy locals — perhaps to include Qualcomm co-founder and Democratic billionaire Irwin Jacobs — to use the U-T to pull the strings of public opinion with a combined strategy of factual omissions, biased coverage, and editorial attacks on political enemies, much as Manchester’s critics say he has done.
A likely political beneficiary is identified as Nathan Fletcher, the ex-Republican Assemblyman who switched his registration to decline-to-state and then to the Democratic Party in a thus-far futile effort to be elected mayor with the help of Jacobs.
A sale to the L.A. Times, while introducing its own biases — including a lock-in of the Chargers’ move north — would block the locals' political power play.
“There would be real concern among people in San Diego about L.A. people coming in, of sending down Times reporters,” ex-Cox cable chief Bill Geppert told Doctor. Geppert is associated with Burnham in the nonprofit venture.
"Geppert says the group of about 15 local philanthropists has pledged more than half the money needed to buy the newspaper assets," Doctor reported. "The group’s driving theme: sustain the paper through more digital dislocation — and add back to the reporting staff."