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
from <em>San Diego Week</em> broadcast
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.