If anyone is still around who thinks San Diego's future won't be determined by big business from afar, a new bout of behind-the-scenes boardroom jockeying by Union-Tribune and Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong may disabuse them of the lingering notion that locals can command their own fate.
In days of yore, Jim and Helen Copley, and later Republican kingpin Doug Manchester, all of La Jolla, lorded over city hall, assuring development went as they wanted, including a vast new Navy Hospital in the middle of Balboa Park, an auto-packed Mission Valley, and L.A.-style North City sprawl.
But big pharma power-player Soon-Shiong of Los Angeles, who took over the U-T in June with no apparent skin in the local real estate game, has much grander national ambitions, per word on Wall Street regarding a putative partnership with McClatchy Newspapers to take over star-crossed tronc.
The strangely-named Chicago-based newspaper operation, which sold the L.A. Times and U-T to Soon-Shiong for $500 million and change, is back in play,with the tronc-owned Chicago Tribune reporting September 14 that Sacramento-based newspaper chain McClatchy, owner of the California capital's daily Bee, is talking tronc takeover.
Any would-be deals for tronc implicitly involve Soon-Shiong, who is the company's second-largest shareholder with 25 percent, thanks to his 2016 role as a white knight in a pitched battle against a failed takeover bid by Gannett, another fading newspaper giant.
With his stake in tronc, along with full ownership of the L.A. Times and Union-Tribune, Soon-Shiong could stand to be a new age Charles Foster Kane, potentially eclipsing his billionaire rivals, including the Washington Post's Jeff Bezos.
Asks media blogger Ken Doctor in a September 17 post, "Could California become a new epicenter of the American local newspaper business? Could Patrick Soon-Shiong have found a bigger lab to test his theories of AI-enhanced journalism?"
Doctor postulates that the U-T and L.A. Times could align with a McClatchy-merged tronc in quest of the newspaper industry's Holy Grail, a money-making online news and Artificial Intelligence behemoth yet to be invented.
"Five major newspapers would now stretch from San Diego to Sacramento. McClatchy’s three Bees — in Sacramento, Modesto, and Fresno, all aligned in the populous central valleys of the state — would find themselves aligned with Southern California’s two biggest dailies, the Times and the Union-Tribune," notes Doctor, writing for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab.
"Such a 'chain' could offer much in the way of journalistic sharing and additional cost efficiencies. The dream — had by many and hatched successfully by none — of 'California-wide' news digital news products would inevitably get a new life at some point."
Though unspoken, consolidation schemes have in the past involved layoffs and further declines of the newspapers sucked into their vortexes, along with far less attention to local affairs, with none of the touted enhanced reporting.
Adding to the doubts of some is the recruitment of ex-U-T managing editor Kris Viesselman to fill the amorphous-sounding post of Chief Transformation Editor at the L.A. Times without adequate explanation of what she will do.
Thus, an endgame remains difficult to decipher, especially as print advertising continues to plunge and details of Soon-Shiong's online and video revival plans for the San Diego paper and its big sister in L.A. continue to duck full disclosure.
"In the next few weeks, as we approach the 100-day mark following completion of Nant Media’s acquisition of the Times, we shall communicate more with all of you, making sure you know where we are going and how we are going to get there," Times executive editor Norm Pearlstine wrote to the paper's staff on September 13 in an email posted by LA Observed that was otherwise devoted to a warning against overly decorating the new El Segundo newsroom.
"In the past few weeks we have seen some, ahem, colorful DIY décor popping up on our news floors," noted Pearlstine. "Refrigerator doors have been decorated and posters have been affixed to furniture, including, most conspicuously, one depicting a vending machine on the newly-installed phone booth."
"Please be assured that we do not seek to limit communication. We have, for example, created comfortable and functional sitting areas to encourage conversation and collaboration. We are also installing bulletin boards on floors devoted to editorial, so all employee notices can be posted, and, as a reminder, all employees may decorate their personal work areas consistent with Times policies. (End caps of desks, however, are not part of the personal work area.)"
Added Pearlstine, "Housekeeping and security will assist in ensuring that our building retains its professional appearance and décor."