A less perfect Union

The man who tried to resurrect the city’s onetime conservative daily voice says it’s in trouble—again

All name, no gain: James Smith    still wishes the Union was back.

All name, no gain: James Smith still wishes the Union was back.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Last week, recently resigned Sacramento Union Publisher James Smith went public with his claim that a member of the McClatchy family—the clan that owns The Sacramento Bee—is threatening editorial diversity in the River City.

The Union, a venerable newspaper that until 1994 provided a second daily news dose in town, was resurrected last year as a fledgling Internet site and sort-of-monthly glossy magazine. Smith, a longtime newspaper exec who revived the name, promised that the Union would again be a conservative alternative to the Bee.

When the Union announced last year that it would begin publishing a monthly magazine, 4,000 subscriptions came in, according to the resurrected publication’s former editor, Kenneth Grubbs Jr. But that number dropped in recent months. In contrast, about 305,000 people purchase The Sacramento Bee on a daily basis, according to the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations numbers.

Now, Smith is claiming that the McClatchy family, which owns the Bee and 11 other dailies in California’s Central Valley and in other states, is trying to take over the Union, which last month fired the bulk of its small staff, delayed the publication of its June issue (still not on newsstands) and began updating its Web site only with news stories reposted from other sources.

Smith blames J.J. McClatchy, who served on the Union’s board of directors when it was brought back. McClatchy did not return a phone call from SN&R seeking comment for this story. Elaine Lintecum, a spokeswoman for the McClatchy Co., said she does not speak for individual family members and that the company does not comment on industry rumors.

J.J. McClatchy is described by some who know him as one of the “black sheep” in the McClatchy family—a conservative in a liberal clan. Instead of rising through the ranks of his family’s newspaper company, he went into real estate and is president of the Rancho Cordova-based McClatchy Management Co. He even told the Sacramento Business Journal, in a 1998 interview, that not pursuing a newspaper career was the best business decision he’d ever made.

But McClatchy has kept his hand in the journalism industry, making an effort to buy the Union in 1992, according to the Business Journal. When the California Newspaper Publishers Association granted him an associate membership earlier this year, it described McClatchy as “part owner” of The Sacramento Union.

Smith claims that McClatchy, in a May 30 Union board-of-directors meeting, tried to name himself general manager of the Union and said that he could get McClatchy family funding to keep the Union afloat.

“My wife and I both heard it, and we both resigned,” said Smith. (Audrey Smith also served on the Union’s board of directors.) They quit, Smith said, at a June 9 meeting during which McClatchy was successful in becoming general manager. The Union’s operations have now moved into the McClatchy Management Co.’s offices in Rancho Cordova, according to Smith.

Grubbs took to the KFBK AM airwaves last week, broadcasting the takeover theory to the region’s largest radio audience. The Union responded almost immediately, on its Web site, stating, “The Union is still under the same ownership (a group of Sacramento businessmen not associated with the McClatchy family) and has not been sold or transferred in any way to the McClatchy family or The Sacramento Bee.”

Later, in an interview with SN&R, Grubbs suggested that J.J. McClatchy is trying to win one for his newspapering kin.

“He may be trying to make himself a hero to the family,” Grubbs said. “They have the name [of a newspaper] which they battled for more than a century, and they can put it in the bottom drawer.”

On its Web site, the Union states that its next printed magazine—the June edition—will be distributed on July 15.

Darby Patterson wrote for the Union when it was still an ink-and-newsprint daily and returned to the publication for a few months earlier this year. She blames poor editorial leadership for what is, apparently, the second demise of the Union.

“As far as I’m concerned, Ken took that organization down,” Patterson said.

“That’s nonsense,” Grubbs replied, countering that the Union’s downfall was that it threw too much money at the magazine rather than concentrate on the Web site.

Smith appeared less concerned with how the Union might fail and more with whose name is behind it.

“This city needs another editorial voice not under the control of the McClatchy family,” Smith said.