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5 Editors, Columnist Quit in Santa Barbara

News-Press' billionaire owner improperly intruded on content, the journalists say.

July 07, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Five top editors and a veteran columnist have resigned from the Santa Barbara News-Press, saying Thursday that the newspaper's billionaire owner had been meddling improperly in the editorial content of the 151-year-old publication.

Editor Jerry Roberts was escorted from the newspaper's headquarters before noon as several staff members cried and others hurled obscenities at the new publisher, Travis K. Armstrong, the latest in a series of people to run the paper under controversial owner Wendy McCaw.

Six years ago, the newspaper's journalists reacted with relief, even euphoria, when McCaw purchased the paper from the New York Times Co. They welcomed the ascension of a local owner -- known for her environmentalism and philanthropy -- over an investor-owned chain that had made sharp cost-cutting and layoffs routine.

But Thursday, reporters and editors described an "awful" and "surreal" scene -- what Santa Barbara's alternative paper called a "self-inflicted blood bath." Several News-Press employees and the city's leader said McCaw's tenure should give pause to the many journalists across the country who had been pining for private ownership of their papers.

"When the newspaper was up for sale, we were wishing for a local owner," said Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum. "Now we have one, and all I can say is, 'Be careful what you wish for.' "

The journalists who resigned Wednesday and Thursday cited several instances in which McCaw injected herself into areas they said were typically left to journalists.

One dispute arose when she directed that the paper not publish a short article about a drunk driving sentence given to Armstrong, then the editorial page editor and soon to become publisher. Another dispute involved her reprimand of a reporter and three editors for publishing the address where actor Rob Lowe planned to build his "dream home."

Several of the editors said the final straw for them came in the last week, when McCaw appointed Armstrong as publisher. The often sharp-tongued editorial writer told the staff he planned to directly oversee some news coverage.

Roberts and the other departing journalists believed that would obliterate the line that traditionally separates newspapers' news-gathering operations from their opinion pages.

"I think there is a good reason that American newspapers keep straight news separate from the opinion pages," Roberts said. "It's so readers can tell the difference between fact and opinion. To do anything that would lower that barrier is a very slippery slope."

McCaw and Armstrong did not respond to requests for comment.

A newspaper spokesman declined to discuss departing editors' specific complaints and blamed the exodus on editorial differences.

"For a number of months, there has been a discussion between Mrs. McCaw and senior editors about the direction of the News-Press," said the spokesman, Sam Singer. "She desired to have a stronger emphasis on local news, and these individuals didn't like that emphasis, and so they decided to part company."

Roberts, a former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, strongly disagreed with that characterization. He said that as News-Press editor he had aimed to increase local content, and he noted that the newspaper had been cited for general excellence by the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. in three of his four years there.

Those joining Roberts in leaving the News-Press are veterans, most with decades in the news business: Managing Editor George Foulsham, Deputy Managing Editor Don Murphy, Business Editor Michael Todd, Metro Editor Jane Hulse and 46-year News-Press fixture Barney Brantingham, whose column ran five days a week.

"I still love the News-Press," Brantingham said in an interview. "I just can't work under these unprofessional conditions. I just hate to see what has happened to the newspaper."

Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, called it an "amazing commentary" to have so many journalists leave at a time when jobs in the industry are hard to come by. "They must have felt like they were under severe pressure," Nelson said.

The Santa Barbara News-Press, with a daily circulation of about 40,000, has long had a reputation as a solid midsize newspaper. For much of the last century, the newspaper was dominated by owner Thomas M. Storke, a firebrand who briefly served as an appointed U.S. senator and who helped bring a University of California campus and a growth-spurring reservoir to the region.

McCaw, 55, bought the paper in 2000 for an estimated $100 million or more, using a fortune she built from a divorce settlement she won from cellphone magnate Craig McCaw.

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