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Monday, July 17, 2006

Rice and beans for all

Kevin McKiernan for The New York Times

Journalists at The Santa Barbara News-Press
protested a gag order issued by the paper’s owner.

At One Paper, All Tension Is Local

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Wendy P. McCaw, the reclusive multimillionaire owner of The Santa Barbara News-Press, is at war with her own staff. What started as a conflict over journalistic ethics has in the past week escalated into a full-blown rebellion.

Staffers have been marching out the door, accusing her of interfering with their editorial independence. When she published her explanation of the departures as an expression of bias in the reporting staff on Thursday, even more quit. On Friday, her staff — or what remained of it — held a rally outside the newspaper building, where some 30 reporters and editors, dressed in black, put duct tape over their mouths, to represent the owner’s gag order issued last week.

Throughout, Mrs. McCaw, who acquired the paper in 2000, has been absent, away in Europe and communicating mainly through her deputy, the acting publisher and opinion page editor, Travis Armstrong.

In her first interview about the resignations, she said on Sunday that the fault was with those who had left.

“This is not a freedom of the press issue, or of intimidation of the newsroom,” she said. “There were personality differences in the newsroom, and the people who didn’t want to be there are not there any longer.”

At a time when the future of newspapers is being challenged by the Internet, and as newspapers around the country — large and small — debate the merits of private versus corporate ownership, The News-Press is an example of what can happen when an active, committed local owner determines to steer her own path.

But the still-unfolding story of the paper, a 105-year-old institution in this upscale, seaside city, remains highly unusual. It is certainly a surprising turn for a paper that won a Pulitzer Prize under its last local owner, Thomas M. Storke, in 1962, and which frequently wins general excellence awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

At the heart of the conflict is Mrs. McCaw, an enigmatic local figure whose fortune, which resulted from her divorce from the cellphone magnate Craig McCaw in 1997, was at one time estimated by Forbes at more than $1 billion. She bought the paper in 2000 from The New York Times Company for more than $100 million (the exact figure was not made public). Known as a libertarian, environmentalist, animal-rights activist and vegetarian, she rarely is seen in the newsroom. Amid all the turmoil, she said she was reading the paper only “occasionally.”

But Mrs. McCaw has expressed strong views via the editorial page, about issues from property rights to the preservation of wild pigs in the nearby Channel Islands. Sometimes her views raised eyebrows, as when an editorial called for people to donate rice and beans, rather than turkeys, to the poor on Thanksgiving.

Mr. Armstrong, meanwhile, has become a magnet for discontent outside the paper because of his sharply worded editorials about local officials, including the mayor, and his own involvement in the news-gathering operation. Since becoming acting publisher two weeks ago, he quashed a news article about the newsroom resignations — running his column with an explanation instead — and killed an article about a city councilwoman’s decision to retire.

In the six years since the paper changed owners, circulation at The News-Press has dropped steadily — as it has at most newspapers across the country — from 48,000 to about 40,000. Still, profit margins have risen to 25 percent from about 11 percent, buoyed by advertising from Santa Barbara’s booming, high-end real-estate market and the elimination of employee benefits like pensions and 401(k)’s, according to a former top executive at the paper, who asked not to be named because the information was proprietary
In a front-page note to readers on Thursday, Mrs. McCaw essentially accused members of her staff of misconduct, writing that the turmoil at the paper resulted because her ideals of “accurate unbiased reporting, and more local stories that readers want to read” were not being reached.

“When news articles become opinion pieces, reporting went unchecked and the paper was used as a personal arena to air petty infighting by the editors, these goals were not met,” she wrote.

The letter was met with outrage and confusion in the newsroom. “It’s a sad thing for her to attack her own newsroom that way,” said Mr. Roberts, who resigned. “What’s the message here?”

But in 2004, editors rankled at instances when Mrs. McCaw asked for special news consideration of pet subjects, such as litigation she won against an architect, or more prominent placement of reviews by her fiancé, Arthur Von Wiesenberger, then the newspaper’s restaurant critic.

Relations deteriorated between Mrs. McCaw and Mr. Roberts, and she stopped speaking to him after the fall of 2004, he said, communicating when necessary through her fiancé.

In early 2005 when Joe Cole, Mrs. McCaw’s lawyer, became the publisher, things settled down. Mr. Cole resigned in April of this year for undisclosed reasons, and Mrs. McCaw and Mr. Von Wiesenberger became co-publishers.

The conflict over the division between editorial opinion and news-gathering arose anew when Mr. Armstrong was arrested in May for drunken driving. The newspaper ran a news article on Page 3, which Mr. Armstrong considered a sign of a personal vendetta against him by Mr. Roberts. Mrs. McCaw said she agreed that the prominence of the article reflected a vendetta.

Mr. Roberts denied that, saying the paper could not favor its own employees, especially a high-profile figure like Mr. Armstrong. “It wasn’t a close call,” he said. “He’s a public figure in this town, and a lightning rod.”

When Mr. Armstrong was sentenced a couple of weeks later, Mr. Roberts planned a short follow-up, but received instructions from his higher-ups not to print the item after Mr. Armstrong complained. Mr. Roberts killed the article, determining then that he would probably have to leave the paper.

Asked to clarify the journalistic standard at The News-Press, Mr. Armstrong said: “Some of it is on a case-by-case basis,” declining to elaborate further.

In the past week, Mr. Armstrong named a new assistant managing editor, a city editor, an interim sports editor and a contributing business editor to replace those who walked out. But the situation has only become more volatile.

At Friday’s vigil, a couple of hundred supporters chanted, “Shame!” as Mr. Armstrong looked down from the Mission-style newspaper tower. Mr. Brantingham, speaking before the crowd, openly wept. “I can’t stand it,” he said. “I love that paper. It’s hurt me so much. And it didn’t have to happen.”

At the vigil, a reporter, Scott Hadly, told his co-workers that he also would resign.

With the newspaper up in arms, the ripples have spread far beyond the newsroom. “We’re surprised, and concerned,” said Mayor Marty Blum, looking out the window of her office in city hall toward The News-Press, a historic building just next door. “We need a good local paper.” She said several local investors were meeting to discuss the options for starting an alternate daily paper.

A protest against Mrs. McCaw was planned for tomorrow in front of the newspaper, and an open forum on journalism ethics was scheduled for Wednesday. Mr. Armstrong said about 200 people had canceled subscriptions

Mr. Cannon called on Mr. Armstrong to resign, writing: “People don’t trust the news when it is merely an expression of opinion.”

Mr. Armstrong gives no sign of preparing to resign. And on Saturday, the paper won two first-place prizes at the annual awards of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, one for the front page, and for the editorial page. Mr. Armstrong did not attend.
This is an embarassment.

Ms. McCaw is a wackjob unaware of the responsibility of a publisher. If she wants to live in Europe, she needs to not hire PR reps and sell the paper to people who give a shit.

It's not a toy. And while she can rant about not eating turkeys all she wants, demanding that the publisher's arrest not be discussed in print is unethical and insane.

posted by Steve @ 1:19:00 AM

1:19:00 AM

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