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Union to Merge With Troubled S.D. Tribune


SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Union and Tribune, whose distinct editorial voices and highly competitive news staffs belied their common ownership for more than six decades, will merge early next year into a single newspaper with morning and afternoon editions, Publisher Helen K. Copley announced Wednesday.

Reflecting a nationwide shift by readers toward morning newspapers, the planned merger stems largely from declining circulation in the afternoon Tribune, a 96-year-old publication which itself merged with two other papers over the past half century.

"The Tribune is a wonderful newspaper, and it's not that we haven't tried our very best to maintain it as a separate and independent paper," said Copley, chairwoman and chief executive officer of Copley Press Inc., which has owned the two papers since 1928. "For many years, we have competed against ourselves."

The new joint newspaper, to be called the San Diego Union-Tribune, will be a larger paper combining "the best of each newspaper's news staffs, columnists, features, sections and comics," Copley said.

Some of the two newspapers' 1,875 staffers in all departments could be laid off, but neither the extent of the cutbacks nor the manner in which they will be made has been decided, Copley executives said. A committee consisting of top management from both the Union and Tribune will work out details on how the two papers' staffs will be combined.

Another major uncertainty is whether Union Editor Gerald Warren, Tribune Editor Neil Morgan or a new editor will lead the joint publication.

"Given the inevitable demise of afternoon newspapers, I like the way this is being done," Morgan said. "These two papers have clobbered each other; now we are going to work together, meld our imprints. It's going to be fascinating. I expect the best of all possible worlds--that's what I'm gunning for."

Typified by a feisty, aggressive style of reporting and a more moderate editorial stance than the staid, staunchly conservative Union, the Tribune won two Pulitzer Prizes over the past dozen years: one for best local reporting in 1979 based on staff coverage of a mid-air collision over San Diego in which 144 people died, and one for editorial writing on immigration affairs in 1987.

"The loss of any newspaper is regrettable, because it eliminates an important voice in the community," said San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner. "The Tribune developed an independent personality that was extremely useful and will be missed."

Similarly, Michael Shames, executive director of Utility Consumers Action Network, called the merger "tragic . . . news" that will "reduce competition and reduce the choices that consumers will have for getting their information."

Despite the two papers' differences and the fact that only about 3% of their subscriptions overlap, they often have been lumped together in the public consciousness as "the Copley Press"--a phrase treated as a scornful epithet in certain local political, business and social circles.

Accordingly, the merger's announcement also drew some markedly unsympathetic reaction Wednesday, none more so than that of former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who has long complained of what he sees as the papers' biased news coverage, both of his own career and other issues.

"One down and one to go," said Hedgecock, now a radio and television talk-show host. "It wasn't as bad as the Union, but (the Tribune) still was part of what in effect was a bizarre reign of terror by a publisher who tried to determine the community's political, business and social agenda. With that fig leaf of respectability that the Tribune gave now gone, that issue may come into sharper relief."

Because there had been consistent rumors about the Tribune's possible merger, sale or even closure over the past several years, there was more surprise over the timing than the content of Wednesday's announcement, both inside and outside the two newspapers' joint Mission Valley publishing plant.

Only several weeks ago, Tribune staffers were assured by Morgan that Copley intended to maintain two separate newspapers for the foreseeable future, according to one Tribune staffer. Despite such assurances, many Tribune employees said they had braced themselves for the inevitability of an announcement similar to Wednesday's.

"Frankly, we felt it was going to happen," said David Hasemyer, a Tribune reporter whose wife also writes for the paper. "No matter what assurances we had been given for so long, the trend across the country has not been good for afternoon papers. Most of us were surprised it happened now the way it did. I don't think we're shocked that it happened."

Herb Klein, Copley Newspapers' editor in chief, said in an interview that the merger decision was made at a management meeting Friday. Previously, the Tribune had been studying other alternatives--including a format change, perhaps to a tabloid-size publication--as a means of bolstering its sagging circulation.

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