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Seeing the Future,Struggling to Execute It | @BCMikeMalone

U-T TV, the online and cable channel launched last year by the revamped San Diego Union-Tribune, started off with a splash — a sparkling new studio, the poaching of prominent local television talent and ambitious plans to answer the million-dollar question of what the future of TV news looks like.

Eighteen months later, U-T TV is revamping with more of a news focus — but without some key news figures. J.R. Mahon, the San Diego TV vet brought on as U-T TV director of news and programming in May 2012, departed this past August, not long after Leloba Seitshiro, the liaison between what is now called U-T San Diego’s seasoned print reporters and its flashy new TV counterpart, bolted as well.

Piling on to the challenges at U-T TV, Jeanette Abrahamsen, the assistant news director since launch, plans to leave before the end of this month. Abrahamsen calls her 18 months on the job “extremely difficult and challenging,” but uniquely rewarding as well. “It’s been very exciting,” she says. “I never imagined I’d get to build a TV station.”

U-T TV is more than that. Spawned after the newspaper was acquired by conservative real estate mogul Doug Manchester’s MLIM Holdings, U-T TV is the embodiment of what every local news exec goes to bed thinking about each night: What the heck TV news will look, sound and feel like for the next generation of consumers. Mahon says the model is mobile first, TV second, the computer third and print fourth. “I think print is the last to come to the table,” he says.

Offering a round-the-clock mix of news, commentary and lifestyle content, U-T TV had a noisy premiere when it launched online and on Cox and AT&T u-Verse cable (the channel does not air on Time Warner Cable, another major subscription-TV operator in San Diego). With a $3.5 million budget and the paper’s robust news reputation, it hired some of DMA No. 28’s key TV talent, including Mahon, Abrahamsen and Seitshiro from Scrippsowned KGTV. Station managers say U-T TV execs approached them about partnerships, including airing the network as a subchannel.

“A competitor who provided local news and content — they were 100% on our radar when they launched,” says Pat Nevin, VP and general manager at KFMB.

Fits and Starts

Not as much anymore. One San Diego TV veteran likens the content mix to “radio on television,” while another cites the challenge of turning print veterans into engaging television personalities.

Some former staffers describe the place as a bit chaotic. Others say it offered more editorial freedom than some traditional shops. “If you have an idea, you can just run with it,” says Seitshiro.

These days, U-T TV is adding news and cutting back on the commentary, Abrahamsen says, including a 5 p.m. program that launched Oct. 2 and a morning show set to bow later this month. Amid the departures, much of the content responsibility will fall on another broadcast vet—Luis Cruz, former news director at KYMA Yuma (Ariz.).

Mahon, meanwhile, is producing the morning show at KSWB San Diego while continuing to think about the future of local news. “My iPhone is where I get my information all day long,” he says. “The next step [for news] is not a secret; the monetization problem is harder.”