This article has been changed to clarify that an August 9 email was first obtained by KPBS/Investigative NewSource.
The investigative news site Voice Of San Diego has raised ethical concerns about the CEO of the city’s major daily newspaper, who has reportedly been sending threatening emails to local officials in an attempt to push through the paper’s editorial vision of a huge stadium and extended conference center along the San Diego port, which is currently a cargo terminal.
John Lynch, who became CEO of U-T San Diego (formerly the Union-Tribune) in December, has led the U-T in a campaign to completely redevelop the San Diego port into a waterfront complex. Lynch’s boss, owner Douglas Manchester, may have millions of dollars of stocks in two hotels on the port and thus could stand to benefit from the plan. Barely a month after Lynch’s appointment, a January 22 editorial announced that the port plans were “prioirity No. 1 for U-T San Diego.” Since August, the paper has run at least three editorials attacking the port for “arrogance” and “bad faith.”
Last month, Lynch sent an email to the city’s port commissioner warning that there would be a campaign to “disband the port” if the commissioner did not vote for certain provisions that would help move along the newspaper’s vision for the port. That August 9 email was first obtained by a KPBS/Investigative NewSource investigation and published on September 26. Voice of San Diego published an extended version on September 27.*
After the email came to light, Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis called it “the most blatant use of the newspaper as a weapon for a development project I’ve yet seen.”
The email is the latest evidence that Lynch is using the U-T as a weapon to crush opposition to his plan, Lewis told CJR. “It’s not all that unheard of for a newspaper to lead a campaign on something that it feels is right or wrong,” he said. “But what got me is that the newspaper became something you could wield as leverage to get your way in a policy decision. It’s an uncomfortably strident stance from the owner and the CEO.”
According to reports on Voice of San Diego and local public broadcaster KPBS, Lynch first denied sending the email, then confirmed to the Voice that he had written it and stood by his intention to campaign for the disbanding of the port. The Voice later reported that Lynch had sent a similar email to a local business leader.
Lynch rejected the description of his emails as threatening. “They’re trying to turn it into threats, but it was actually very cordial,” he said. The U-T, he added, is acting in the best interests of San Diego residents by fighting to turn an underused part of the city into a vibrant new complex. “We believe that we have a responsibility, both as owners of the paper and as business leaders in the city, to call out government waste and corruption. We want our city to succeed so that our business investment can succeed.”
The New York Times took a closer look at the U-T’s new ownership in June, when David Carr wrote that Manchester’s clear editorial agenda could mark a return to a time when businessmen owned city papers in order to use them for political and commercial leverage. “In a sense, it’s back to the future for newspapers,” Carr wrote, “to a time when they didn’t make much money but could enrich their owners by advancing their agendas in other areas.”
Lynch echoed Carr’s thoughts, saying that that the port campaign was part of the paper’s fight against the general decline in revenue for regional dailies, which he referred to as the “self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.”
“You have to be loud, you have to be boisterous if you’re going to get people back after they’ve left and try to get subscribers to return to a newspaper,” Lynch said. “We’re trying to do what we think is essential—number one to help the city, and number two to help our business.”
Manchester’s reach continues to grow for now, at least. Last week, the Associated Press reported that he has completed the purchase of the second-largest daily in the region, the North County Times. Lynch said that while they have not yet discussed editorial policy at the North County Times, the paper will operate under the same editorial board as the U-T.