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San Diego U-T, brought to you by SDG&E

Newspaper's website makeover sells exclusive sponsorship to giant utility for undisclosed fee

San Diego's big shark in a small pond, otherwise known as Sempra Energy — long noted for having a hand in behind-the-scenes major money doings of local politicos and media outlets — is currently flexing its substantial muscles of influence via an exclusive tie-in with the Chicago-owned Union-Tribune's newly made-over website.

The paper's latest internet re-tooling debuted Wednesday, with Sempra subsidiary San Diego Gas & Electric as its sole sponsor, featuring pop-up advertisements, banner ads, and links to the company's Twitter and Facebook pages.

from U-T's new SDG&E-only website

"A local business lowers their energy bill. Watch now," says a top-of-the-page link to a 30-second embedded video about a Kensington veterinarian touting the firm's energy audits.

Under previous owner and publisher Doug Manchester, the U-T also sold the Sempra subsidiary the right to run its own version of the news, obscurely labeled "Sponsored" in small print off to the side of each online story.

As of this week that material remains on the new website, under headlines including "SDG&E boosts public safety by enhancing the region’s energy system."

According to a disclaimer in even smaller print elsewhere on the site, "The San Diego Union-Tribune allows marketers to connect directly with our audience by enabling them to create content and participate in the conversation. Each sponsored content article is produced with, or by the marketer."

In the days before the implosion of the newspaper advertising market, publishers often pointed to the numbers and diversity of their advertisers when accused of pandering to specific special interests, but with exclusive deals such as SDG&E's U-T hookup now increasingly accepted as mainstream, the appearance of conflict of interest among the nation's papers is growing.

On September 13, the day before the new SDG&E-backed U-T website was unveiled, the paper ran a story online downplaying a major shake-up of Sempra managers, with president Mark Snell being put out to pasture next year and other executives reassigned.

"Financial analysts who follow the utilities industry told the Union-Tribune the moves did not reflect any turbulence in Sempra's boardroom," was the U-T take on the development, classified under the topic "Energy Green" on its website.

Elsewhere the same day on the U-T site, a story headlined "SoCal Gas to pay $4M settlement over massive gas leak," omitted mentioning that Southern California Gas, like SDG&E, is a Sempra subsidiary.

Unlike the U-T, other media outlets, including the L.A. Business Journal, took notice of the virtually simultaneous timing of the Porter Ranch settlement and the Sempra brass upheaval.

"Just hours after agreeing to pay $4 million in penalties for the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak, SoCal Gas’ parent company announced the utility’s chief executive is being replaced as part of a major corporate shakeup," reported the Business Journal.

Eugene "Mitch" Mitchell

In addition to their financial dealings with the U-T, Sempra and its SDG&E subsidiary have shown up as backers of other local journalistic endeavors, including San Diego State University, owner and operator of the KPBS public broadcasting stations; and the nonprofit news and opinion website *Voice of San Diego, on whose board sits Eugene “Mitch” Mitchell, vice president of state government affairs for both SDG&E and Sempra.

A request made to SDG&E’s public relations department regarding the terms, tenure, and other circumstances of its latest Union-Tribune deal drew no response from the big utility.

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San Diego's big shark in a small pond, otherwise known as Sempra Energy — long noted for having a hand in behind-the-scenes major money doings of local politicos and media outlets — is currently flexing its substantial muscles of influence via an exclusive tie-in with the Chicago-owned Union-Tribune's newly made-over website.

The paper's latest internet re-tooling debuted Wednesday, with Sempra subsidiary San Diego Gas & Electric as its sole sponsor, featuring pop-up advertisements, banner ads, and links to the company's Twitter and Facebook pages.

from U-T's new SDG&E-only website

"A local business lowers their energy bill. Watch now," says a top-of-the-page link to a 30-second embedded video about a Kensington veterinarian touting the firm's energy audits.

Under previous owner and publisher Doug Manchester, the U-T also sold the Sempra subsidiary the right to run its own version of the news, obscurely labeled "Sponsored" in small print off to the side of each online story.

As of this week that material remains on the new website, under headlines including "SDG&E boosts public safety by enhancing the region’s energy system."

According to a disclaimer in even smaller print elsewhere on the site, "The San Diego Union-Tribune allows marketers to connect directly with our audience by enabling them to create content and participate in the conversation. Each sponsored content article is produced with, or by the marketer."

In the days before the implosion of the newspaper advertising market, publishers often pointed to the numbers and diversity of their advertisers when accused of pandering to specific special interests, but with exclusive deals such as SDG&E's U-T hookup now increasingly accepted as mainstream, the appearance of conflict of interest among the nation's papers is growing.

On September 13, the day before the new SDG&E-backed U-T website was unveiled, the paper ran a story online downplaying a major shake-up of Sempra managers, with president Mark Snell being put out to pasture next year and other executives reassigned.

"Financial analysts who follow the utilities industry told the Union-Tribune the moves did not reflect any turbulence in Sempra's boardroom," was the U-T take on the development, classified under the topic "Energy Green" on its website.

Elsewhere the same day on the U-T site, a story headlined "SoCal Gas to pay $4M settlement over massive gas leak," omitted mentioning that Southern California Gas, like SDG&E, is a Sempra subsidiary.

Unlike the U-T, other media outlets, including the L.A. Business Journal, took notice of the virtually simultaneous timing of the Porter Ranch settlement and the Sempra brass upheaval.

"Just hours after agreeing to pay $4 million in penalties for the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak, SoCal Gas’ parent company announced the utility’s chief executive is being replaced as part of a major corporate shakeup," reported the Business Journal.

Eugene "Mitch" Mitchell

In addition to their financial dealings with the U-T, Sempra and its SDG&E subsidiary have shown up as backers of other local journalistic endeavors, including San Diego State University, owner and operator of the KPBS public broadcasting stations; and the nonprofit news and opinion website *Voice of San Diego, on whose board sits Eugene “Mitch” Mitchell, vice president of state government affairs for both SDG&E and Sempra.

A request made to SDG&E’s public relations department regarding the terms, tenure, and other circumstances of its latest Union-Tribune deal drew no response from the big utility.

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Comments
11

OMG, we get to read only SEMPRA/SDG&E "news" banners along with our renewed access to the finally-functional Union-Tribune's online website? Plus SEMPRA/SDG&E's octopus tentacles are over at KPBS/NPR radio and TV and on-line Voice of San Diego? I think that's called a trifecta. We look forward to hearing details about the exclusive terms.

Sept. 15, 2016

Utilities should be rate payer owned not investor owned. Compare the two and you will find that they operate the same. They pay well and have good equipment and good service. The difference is the huge profit investor owned utilities make. Rate payer owned utility rates are 30% to 60% lower than investor owned. As an example SCE vs. IID. SCE is like SDG&E/Edison making huge profits and ripping off customers with tiered rates that result in high electric bills. IID is rate payer owned and has one rate for all electricity used and the bills run, on average, 40% lower.

Sept. 15, 2016

I totally agree with you, Alex. The 3 investor owned monopolies in California are running out of control. The California Public Utilities Commission is a joke, and the lobbyists keep the politicians pro-utility.

I've been told that SDG&E is currently offering employees a handshake of an $100,000 Medical Credit Card in addition to the other bloated retirement benefits to entice retirement. Why not...the rate payers will pick up the tab.

How can we put and end to this graft? There are more of us than them!

Sept. 16, 2016

Huge corporations can (and do) gain favor in high places. They play rough.

Sept. 19, 2016

Publicly owned utilities are the best way to go to save $$$$ and to get rid of all this graft, corruption and conflicts of interest.

Sept. 16, 2016

This is just another level of insurance for SDG&E to make sure that nothing BAD gets written about the multiple billion dollar replacement steam generator debacle that was responsible for the early closure of San Onofre, which ratepayers are each now on the hook for about $1800 that even includes "lost profits" for both SDG&E and SCE, (since SDG&E is a 20% owner of San Onofre).

For much more google #SanOnofreGate ==> The hashtag that will allow you to keep up to date on the ongoing investigation into the multi-billion $ SCE-CPUC ripoff.

Sept. 16, 2016

SanOnofreGate The new hashtag that will allow you to keep up to date on the ongoing investigation into the multi-billion $ SCE-CPUC ripoff.

Sept. 16, 2016

This is terrible. All the conflicts of interest. Just awful for the future.

Sept. 16, 2016

When I saw that sponsorship logo, I really wondered too. Newspapers for decades (centuries actually) claimed a firewall or "Chinese Wall" existed that separated their business side from the journalism side. For many, or actually most, papers that was a lie, in that the business considerations did influence the editorial decisions. But a few of the big city dailies actually did make a big effort to abide by the separation. (The U-T was not one of those, BTW.)

Now the influence is out in the open, and anyone with an ounce of sense will know that Sempra/SDGE will get gentle and flattering treatment from the paper. But there is a good thing: the paper's circulation is shrinking rapidly, and thus its influence is waning as fast or faster. So, whereas the lack of news coverage, or biased coverage, once made a big difference in local public opinion, it no longer does.

Sempra will have to spend lavishly to get a majority of local and state-level politicians and news media on its side. Even if it does that and succeeds, that doesn't mean the will of the public will be forever ignored and/or thwarted. But it will take a while for money to stop buying influence and favorable reporting in the manner of Sempra's current abuses.

Sept. 16, 2016

Visduh — BTW The Utilities have spent lavishly since they are experts at spreading around SOME of the money that they have gotten the CPUC to allow them to charge us as ever more ratepayer increases! Plus, every Utility donation comes with a "HOOK" that the Utilities call in when they need organizations and/or elected officials to support their every more rate increases!

Sept. 17, 2016

Since Sempra Energy is leasing its new building at 488 Eighth Ave. for 25 years, I guess they decided to lease space on the Union-Tribune pages. It's cheaper than buying a local TV station, plus the FCC might frown on that.

Sept. 17, 2016

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