SAN DIEGO (AP) — The new media barons of America’s eighth-largest city are upfront about wanting to use their newspaper to promote their agenda of downtown development and politically conservative causes — and they are making their points in a brash, bare-knuckle style.
Douglas Manchester and his partner John Lynch gave their 143-year-old newspaper a new slogan — “The World’s Greatest Country & America’s Finest City” — ran a front-page editorial that declared their plan to reshape the city’s downtown waterfront their highest priority, and forecast doom if President Barack Obama wins re-election.
Manchester, who became wealthy building hotels during the dawn of San Diego’s downtown renaissance and insists on being called “Papa Doug,” bought The San Diego Union-Tribune last year and its most serious competitor, the North County Times, this month. As he and Lynch eye expansion to Los Angeles and other major cities, they are frank about seeking to use their new platforms to advance their agenda — and they think they can make a profit while they’re at it.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Lynch said the new owners bought the newspaper in part to promote their views in editorials. He called those views pro-family, pro-military and pro-America, and said “anybody who isn’t shouldn’t be living here.”
“We think our country is on the edge of real, real danger, and you have to stand up, and that was a huge part of why we bought this,” said Lynch, vice chairman and chief executive officer of U-T San Diego, the newspaper’s new name.
The editorial page named Obama the worst U.S. president and predicted a second term will result in “Arab terror states” attacking Israel, “death panels” rationing health care, income tax rates between 60 and 70 percent for many Californians and an attempt to get taxpayers to pay for late-term abortions. It warned of an effort to erase “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency.
Manchester, 70, is likened to a smaller market version of Rupert Murdoch and earlier moguls like William Randolph Hearst and Robert McCormick who used newspapers to wield influence. The unusually strong editorial tone stands out in an era when many newspapers are owned by corporations.
“Hard to believe UT could go further to the right and for the developers but now it is owned by the developers!” Ron Belanger, a 70-year-old retired Navy aviator, wrote on a Facebook page for critics of the new owners called “Bring the L.A. Times back to San Diego.”
“It’s a strong voice for a minority viewpoint in the media,” countered Josef Horowitz, a 67-year-old retired college administrator who renewed his subscription in March, having canceled it under previous owners because he felt the editorials were mealy-mouthed and too liberal.
Lynch said editor Jeff Light has complete control of news coverage and that neither he nor Manchester, as chairman and publisher, meddle.
“Aside from the activist stance of the owners, I am someone who is scrupulously concerned with fairness,” Light said.
Lynch, a former radio station owner with a linebacker’s build at age 65, speaks bluntly. He recently wrote to Scott Peters, a Port of San Diego commissioner and Democratic nominee for Congress, demanding to know his position on a shipping contract to unload bananas that could complicate the publisher’s plans for the downtown waterfront redevelopment. He wanted an exit clause.
“Otherwise this will become a major issue in the campaigns and the UT will be forced to lead a campaign to disband the PORT,” he wrote.
The email correspondence, dated in early August and released after a public records request by KPBS/I-Newsource, came as Peters wages a bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, a Republican endorsed by the newspaper.
In May, Lynch lashed out when the city warned of a fine for hanging a promotional banner outside its offices. He agreed to take it down while seeking approval for a large video screen atop the five-story building.
“If it weren’t for the digital sign pending approval, I would instruct our folks to run a piece on how this is so reflective of this city being anti-business,” Lynch wrote a city councilman’s aide, according to an email published by the San Diego Reader.
Lynch said his missive about the sign was intended as a joke and questions why other news organizations haven’t taken a harder look at the port.
Dean Nelson, director of Point Loma Nazarene University’s journalism program, said he hasn’t seen blatant examples of editorial views seeping into news coverage and is skeptical how much newspaper editorials shape public policy. The question that will be watched most closely in the beleaguered U.S. newspaper industry, he said, is whether the business succeeds.
Tim McGuire, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, said San Diego is at the forefront of what he predicts will be a major trend of wealthy people buying newspapers to push for their agendas.
“People are going to buy and treat newspapers like sports teams,” he said. “It’s a toy, it’s fun to have, and it gives you great power.”
Manchester embraced the “Papa Doug” moniker after a Little League coach used it to distinguish him from a son, also named Doug. “Papa Doug” sold interests in two giant downtown hotels but still has major holdings in San Diego and is pursuing prospects, including a $1.3 billion hotel and office complex on the downtown waterfront.
Lynch said Manchester was unavailable for an interview. The pair are old friends and allies since they led a failed campaign to move San Diego’s airport out of downtown in the 1990s.
Manchester spent $550,000 on his 65th birthday bash, as well as traveled extensively around the world and stayed at luxury hotels, according to court documents from his 2010 legal separation from his wife of 43 years. Elizabeth Manchester claimed he had $57 million in the bank.
His $125,000 donation to support a 2008 ballot initiative to ban gay marriage in California drew protests — a decision Lynch says his partner regrets.
“If you’re a Catholic, marriage is between a man and a woman,” Lynch said. “He had no idea there would be these kind of ramifications.”
Manchester invested in San Diego-area resident Dinesh D’Souza’s hit documentary, “2016: Obama’s America,” which portrays a gloomy future if the president is re-elected, according to Lynch.
Manchester bought the U-T from private equity firm Platinum Equity LLC for $110 million and picked up the North County Times from Lee Enterprises Inc. for $12 million. Last week, the Times’ print edition was folded into the U-T.
The U-T has spent $5 million on a television venture with a studio in the middle of the newsroom and 12 hours of daily cable programming that highlights Lynch’s radio background. The Sunday edition features more in-depth reports and military coverage.
Lynch said the privately held U-T is “significantly profitable” but declined to be specific about revenue or earnings. One test comes when the Audit Bureau of Circulations releases semiannual paid circulation figures Oct. 30.
Amid a brutal decline in the newspaper business, Manchester and Lynch hope to extend their San Diego empire to other major U.S. cities, eyeing adjacent markets like Los Angeles.
“We’re trying to do what we can to change the direction of this country,” Lynch said.