I have a thing I do for all new employees at Voice of San Diego. Years ago, I would make them sit in the conference room and explain everything I could about local main topics like water or infrastructure or the difference between the county and the city of San Diego. But then we made the San Diego 101 videos and I can just make them watch those.
So I shifted to a talk starting with what a corporation is, how shareholders and boards function and what equity is. How powerful capitalism and the profit drive is and how it has shaped our world (in positive and negative and still-to-be-determined ways). But also it’s been the dominant governance style of newspaper ownership in the United States.
It’s shifting, though, as more and newsrooms either launch as nonprofits or convert to them, as the Salt Lake Tribune did. Having established what profit and shareholder value is, I can distinguish what a nonprofit is and the agreement nonprofits make with the federal and state governments that the organization will pursue a mission that’s valuable to the community and thus it shouldn’t pay taxes on its income. Donors to it can deduct their contributions for tax benefits.
This helps me explain our mission, and how it is rooted in education and carried out through investigative reporting. Nonprofits aren’t better than for-profits. As our own investigative reporting has often shown, nonprofits can exploit and defraud people and be exploited and defrauded. But the structure has proven wise for many news outlets.
We were the first to start as a local, digital nonprofit news organization and now there are hundreds (the Institute for Nonprofit News has 425 members now but some of them are about topic areas, not local regions).
Then I explain what’s happened with newspaper economics. All traditional newspapers are marching toward a cliff — the moment when the revenue they pull in no longer justifies the high cost of printing the paper.
The Union-Tribune was marching toward that cliff. The former editor and publisher, Jeff Light, was planning to produce the best news product he could that people would pay to read it online. Eventually enough of them would to fully fund the newsroom as it existed.
It was an important endeavor. But Patrick Soon-Shiong sold the paper to MediaNews Group and its owner Alden Global Capital and they immediately parted ways with Light and invited dozens of the best journalists to leave.
Since then, we have heard nothing about what they’re going to do. One of the theories is they changed course and are no longer trying to take a large, compelling newsroom into a digital-only age but rather preserve the print product as long as possible, make it vastly cheaper to produce with fewer reporters, increase subscription prices significantly and extract whatever profit it can from the print product for as long as possible.
Since I last wrote about this, the paper has said goodbye to just an astonishing number of valuable journalists. Writers I looked forward to reading each week (and editors who made that possible). Good journalists still work at the paper but it was been a significant blow to San Diego’s ability to understand itself and follow the story of public affairs.
I don’t include all this story of San Diego and corporate governance in my little orientation lecture but it occurred to me as I talked to the new intern today that everything we have been building and trying to maintain for so long is more relevant than it ever has been.
The Union-Tribune’s new owners need to explain soon what their plans are for the paper. But it’s not going to be “expand journalism” so I hope we can get on with planning for that in different ways. I’m not sure what it looks like but we need to start.
That MTS Severance Offer
In July, the news popped when Grecia Figueroa and her attorneys revealed in an update to their lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit System and former County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher that MTS had not only fired Figueroa but also offered her a severance in exchange for her agreeing not to pursue legal action against MTS or Fletcher.
Because of how the update to the complaint was worded, outlets led with the news as though the severance agreement specified she was being asked to release claims against Fletcher specifically.
But this week, MTS released the full severance agreement the agency offered Figueroa and it doesn’t mention a demand to release Fletcher. It does offer her $10,000 if she agreed not to sue MTS and all its people.
“In exchange for the Severance Payment as set forth above, Employee unconditionally, irrevocably and absolutely releases and discharges the Company, and any parent and subsidiary corporations, divisions and other affiliated entities of the Company, past and present, including, but not limited to the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, San Diego Transit Corp. (“SDTC”) and the San Diego Trolley, Inc. (“SDTI”), as well as their respective past and present employees, officers, directors, agents, attorneys, successors and assigns (collectively “Released Parties”), from all claims …”
Background: Figueroa accused Fletcher of sexually assaulting and harassing her. And shortly after the last of those encounters, which Fletcher said later were consensual, MTS abruptly fired Figueroa. She filed suit, Fletcher resigned and vanished from public life.
What’s going on: MTS is demanding that Figueroa’s attorneys remove the reference to the severance and Fletcher in particular. If the severance really did say “and you can’t sue Nathan Fletcher” that’s a lot different than “if you take this you can’t sue us or our directors, etc.”
“Plaintiff attempts to inflame and sensationalize the allegations about the severance offer by unnecessarily and misleadingly affixing Fletcher’s name to it, when in fact Fletcher’s name appears nowhere in the four corners of the severance agreement document that plaintiff references,” reads the new filing by MTS attorneys. Attorney Janice Brown is representing MTS.
Still nothing on the main question: MTS’s new filings still don’t illuminate anything about why they fired her.
The 79th: A couple weeks ago, California Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins announced she would be stepping down from that leadership post as her term in the Senate runs down. We’ll certainly have more to do on her career in Sacramento.
For a brief moment, Fletcher had as much of a hold on that seat as a politician can have. But his downfall has accelerated the line of dominos to fall with this kind of open seat to fill.
Assemblywoman Akilah Weber is running for the state Senate seat and is likely to take it. That leaves her Assembly seat open and this is a tough, open race.
La Mesa City Councilman Colin Parent, who is also the CEO of Circulate San Diego, which advocates for public transit and mobility planning, has gotten much of the San Diego delegation in Sacramento to endorse his campaign along with the Labor Council. But Weber and her mother, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, support LaShae Collins, a community engagement specialist for the San Diego County Office of Education and a professor in the Department of Africana Studies at San Diego State.
Interestingly, Collins now also has the endorsement of San Diego Unified Board Member Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who beat Collins for that school board seat in 2016. Collins had followed her former boss Shirley Weber’s lead in demanding reform and accountability in education.
Enter a new contender: Racquel Vasquez, the mayor of Lemon Grove, has filed to run for the seat according to the Secretary of State’s site.
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