Malcolm CasSelle and Anne Vasquez talk artificial intelligence and monetization in the tronc video.
How much of San Diego can be run by robots controlled by unscrupulous industrial kingpins?
That's one of the questions being posed in local media circles by word that the city's only daily newspaper, the Union-Tribune, has just laid off "a bunch of online editors...including yours truly," according to an evening August 15 tweet by Sandy Coronilla.
She posted a multiple-choice poll, asking readers about the likely reason for the layoffs, including "Robots/AI are taking over," "Not needed in 2016, duh," "Part of LA. consolidation," and "#investifarted."
On Tuesday, August 16, another tweet said, "Hearing more layoffs have happened today at U-T. Feel awful."
The reports come just weeks after the paper, owned by the controversial Chicago-based newspaper chain tronc, endorsed the mammoth road plan and parking garage project for Balboa Park being promoted by La Jolla billionaire Irwin Jacobs, a self-styled take-no-prisoners efficiency buff who wants to cut as many park jobs as he can.
"Have you looked at further automation in the garage to decrease parking garage staff?" Jacobs queried the office of Republican then-mayor Jerry Sanders in a February 5, 2011, email.
"Should be almost human-free except for emergencies."
The super-rich Jacobs and the multi-national corporation he co-founded, Qualcomm, Inc., are long-time proponents of outsourcing jobs abroad and expanding the so-called H-1B visa program to allow more low-cost engineering staff into the country.
High tech and big money are also the watchwords at tronc, run by Midwest wheeler-dealer Michael Ferro.
The day before Coronilla tweeted her tronc-based bad news, the New York Times ran a profile of Ferro, portraying the tronc chief as an unscrupulous operator prepared to use the newspapers under his control to settle scores with his critics, including Los Angeles–based Oaktree Capital, a major tronc stock owner who favors selling the company to newspaper giant Gannett.
"During a meeting in July at his estate in Lake Geneva, Wis., he suggested to top editors and executives that their journalists investigate Oaktree and Bruce Karsh, co-chairman and co-founder of the firm, according to two people with direct knowledge of the meeting," the Times reported of Ferro.
"No damaging article about Oaktree was published, but the episode provides a glimpse into the combative business style of a relatively unknown technology entrepreneur who has become one of the country’s most significant and unpredictable media moguls."
The San Diego branch of the tronc family has so far appeared to be something of an asterisk to the company's corporate mindset.
A widely mocked tronc video, announcing the firm's transition to an online system that would act as a "funnel" to gather and monetize stories from across the chain, omitted the Union-Tribune from the list of tronc newspapers, increasing speculation that the U-T — whose printing is already done in Los Angeles by the tronc-owned L.A. Times — could be on the verge of being folded into the giant to the north, leaving a skeleton staff in San Diego
Jeff Light, the paper's publisher and editor — brought in from Orange County back in 2010 by a previous super-rich owner from Beverly Hills, who soon dumped the paper, recently assured the U-T's dwindling audience that tronc is good news.
"In many ways, tronc is a new beginning," said Light in an interview with the paper. "It represents an effort to do what every legacy media company is trying to do — unlock the power of original content in a world that has tilted toward aggregators and click bait."
Colonel Ira Copley purchased 24 newspapers, mostly small-town dailies in Illinois and California, including the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune from the estate of John Spreckels.
Of Ferro's stewardship and the paper's ultimate fate, he offered insouciantly, "I’m not sure readers should worry too much about the battle to get our shares, or about all the posturing that came with it," Light said. "We are publicly traded, and the market will sort it out in the end."
Beginning with its acquisition by Ira Copley, another Illinois tech baron, in 1928, what has come to be known as the Union-Tribune has a long, if not proud, history of playing politics and manipulating stories to benefit friends and damn enemies.
"The all-out assistance you are giving us — ranging from the loan of [San Diego Union editor] Herb Klein and [Union reporter] Peter Kaye to the help on the San Diego programs — is most gratifying," Nixon wrote then-owner Jim Copley during Nixon's 1960 presidential battle with John F. Kennedy.
"I only wish we had more like you!”