In a shock to local media watchers, San Diego CityBeat has fired editor Ron Donoho, replacing the veteran journalist with arts contributor Seth Combs.

The crusading liberal weekly thus has its third leader since 2002 — after founding editor David Rolland left for a Sacramento job with Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins in March 2015.

But the reason for the change is in dispute.

Ron Donoho, who grows a mustache as part of Movember events. Photo via Facebook

Donoho, who carved a niche as a fierce defender of the homeless, suggested economics were behind his suddenly becoming jobless.

“This was unexpected,” Donoho said Monday via email. “I was told it was due to lagging revenue. I wish the whole staff well moving forward.”

CityBeat publisher Kevin Hellman, reacting first to the “lagging revenue” concern, offered two responses.

On Monday, he wrote Times of San Diego: “I can assure you that CityBeat will be alive and well and in business for a very, very, VERY long time. And if anything, we’ll be including MORE news coverage, not less.”

On Tuesday, Hellman emailed: “We simply decided to make a change and Seth Combs — a longtime contributor to CityBeat — is our new Editor in Chief. We feel that we are in very good hands with Seth leading the editorial team, moving forward. That’s all there is to it.”

First revealed Nov. 23 via Twitter, the firing might not mean much for some publications, especially those with a free-distribution model. But given CityBeat’s history of investigative reporting and challenging San Diego’s establishment, it raised concerns about a pullback from progressive politics.

One critic on the left saw hope, however.

“My opinion of Ron was that he was milquetoast — [wanting] to make too many people happy at the expense of having an actual point of view,” said Doug Porter of San Diego Free Press. “His treatment of [former CityBeat associate editor] Kelly Davis, who I consider to be a top-tier reporter, left a bad taste in my mouth.”

In April 2015, Porter posted a column critical of Donoho.

Seth Combs, new editor of San Diego CityBeat. Photo via LinkedIn

“While I realize that all politics and no culture makes for a boring publication, the drama going on behind the scenes at CityBeat seems indicative of a broader agenda,” Porter wrote. “While I’m guessing some coverage of interest to progressives will continue to appear, the heart and soul of the organization appear to be headed in another direction.”

On Monday, Porter said: “Lately, it’s been the columnists who have done all the heavy lifting (even if I disagreed) at CB.”

Porter, whose bio reminds readers of his long history with San Diego’s alternative press, said he doesn’t know Combs personally.

“But my observations about his writing and insights on social media lead me to believe he’ll be a better choice to run CB,” Porter said. “A big plus is that he seems to understand the world beyond static sites and print journalism.”

Combs, a San Diego State journalism graduate in his late 30s, declined to comment, but leaves a long (and breezy) social media trail.

“Man, I had some great story ideas last night,” he tweeted two weeks ago, “but I was reeeeeeeaaally drunk so there all gone now.”

In 2010, CityBeat reported: “Seth Combs, CityBeat’s former arts and culture editor and one-time editor-in-chief of Pacific San Diego magazine, plans to launch a new web ‘zine called GFYSanDiego.com next month. He says he’ll work with contributors to cover music, art, food, sex and nightlife with an irreverent twist.”

Combs was quoted as saying: “For me, there’s a void in the type of stuff I would like to see covered, the type of stuff I would like to see discussed and I would like to see analyzed and artistically interpreted, and there’s a lot of people that seem to agree with me.”

He told writer Peter Holslin the website would have a blog’s populist bent and he was doing it for the “love of the game” free from corporate backing.

“It doesn’t always have to be about the money, the bottom line,” Combs said.

But GFYSanDiego.com (GFY being an acronym crudity) never took off. Only the shell of a WordPress site remains and a YouTube channel.

In 2009, a Combs blog post appeared on the arts site setanddrift.org in which he talked about a health scare and “being let go by a soulless media corporation,” which wasn’t unspecified.

On CityBeat, Combs is described as having covered the San Diego arts and music scene for over a decade. “He’s also written for Spin, Zagat and The Hollywood Reporter,” says the bio. “He likes dogs and comic books, but is pretty iffy on your band.”

Donoho, executive editor of San Diego Magazine for 12 years before being let go in 2008, is active in the Movember movement, organizing poker tournament fundraisers for men’s health issues, especially the fight against prostate cancer. (He’d grow and shave his mustache as part of the annual affair.)

He gained local notoriety for being a 2013 national finalist in a Ron “Anchorman” Burgundy look-alike contest.

CityBeat is part of a stable of four weeklies and three monthlies operated by Pasadena-based Southland Publishing.

Kevin Uhrich, editor of the sister Pasadena Weekly, said he was sorry to learn about Donoho’s departure.

“I really don’t know about the situation,” he said. “Nor have I heard about any other changes. These are tough times for print journalism.”

A year ago, fiftysomething Donoho said he would take part in a Society of Professional Journalists panel on “What Editors Really Want.”

The overall event was titled: “Moving Forward: How To Survive In & After Journalism.”

Ken Stone contributed news articles to San Diego CityBeat during Donoho’s tenure.