Can a revived investigative reporting push be the key to saving the Union-Tribune from losing its identity, as well as its already dwindling advertising business, to its big northern sibling, the Los Angeles Times?
Or has the beleaguered San Diego news operation finally reached its end, to be ignominiously folded into the L.A. paper, itself facing an existential turning point as owner Patrick Soon-Shiong casts about in the worlds of streaming video and e-sports for a place to park his retooled journalism model?
"The San Diego Union-Tribune is seeking a topic editor to supervise its Watchdog & Accountability team, which consists of two investigative reporters, one data specialist and beat reporters for education, military, government and politics," says a help-wanted notice posted on Glassdoor this week.
"The successful candidate will demonstrate the ability to supervise reporters, oversee newsgathering, enforce standards, edit copy and orchestrate collaboration with other groups. Topic editors share with peers the work of managing the home page and other digital assets and work with the group to prioritize and plan."
Applicants must also have a "working knowledge of digital analytics and social media platforms."
After "Spotlight," the blockbuster 2015 feature film centered on the Boston Globe, hard-core investigative spin on daily reporting has become popular for American newspapers. The practice is believed by publishers to add glamor and intrigue to what their publications used to play as hum-drum reports of city council meetings and crime in the streets.
So-called investigative units have been used to advance political agendas.
Under the U-T's ownership by Republican kingpin Doug Manchester, between 2011 and 2015, the investigative team was enhanced by the arrival from Dallas, Texas of Trent Seibert, formerly employed by a website backed by the conservative Koch brothers.
Seibert and his cohorts in the investigative unit took up their cudgels against Manchester's political enemies without disclosing the publisher's skin in the game, leaving his friends, including Republican congressman Duncan Hunter, unscathed.
Manchester sold the paper to Tribune Publishing of Chicago and Siebert returned to Texas to work for a TV station. He was at work setting up a new non-profit investigative website when he died of unannounced causes in August at age 47.
New Union-Tribune ownership, including Tribune and subsequently Soon-Shiong has nursed the paper's investigative unit along, in part by reversing course on covering the foibles of the GOP's Hunter, who now stands indicted for federal campaign funding violations.
But other venerable political institutions, including San Diego State University, have somehow escaped the paper's investigative notice, despite a slew of negative audits pouring forth from both Washington and Sacramento.
Insiders note that the U-T's latest investigative job offering, requiring "ten years of experience as a professional journalist at [a] reputable news publication or website," comes on the heels of Soon-Shiong's successful exploitation of several Times stories for popular podcasts and scripted cable TV series, including Dirty John, based on a six-part investigative project about a Hollywood con artist.
San Diego, including La Jolla, along with Rancho Santa Fe to the north, could hold similar potential for uncovering a gamut of shifty characters, who may find themselves grist for Soon-Shiong's voracious content mill.
In addition to podcasts, cable, and streaming video, the billionaire L.A. physician - who made his fortune in cancer drugs - has also been touting so-called e-sports, for which he is building an arena as part of the Times complex in El Segundo south of LAX.
After scooping up an interest in San Diego-based Daybreak Game Company, purveyor of popular H1Z1, Soon-Shiong told the Washington Post last month, "We could take an engine like this and find a way to enhance a different form of social network, and games add an element of storytelling."