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Santa Barbarans Worry About Their Paper

July 08, 2006|Catherine Saillant and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

Santa Barbara residents on Friday wondered what would become of the Santa Barbara News-Press following an editorial bloodbath within the 151-year-old local institution's stately walls.

Sports Editor Gerry Spratt became the seventh prominent News-Press staffer to quit this week when he dropped off his letter of resignation at the human resources department Friday morning. In the previous two days, five other editors and a popular columnist quit, saying that owner Wendy McCaw and her newly appointed interim publisher, former editorial writer Travis Armstrong, had censored or killed news stories over editors' objections.

Mickey Flacks, a 39-year resident and a fixture in activist politics, said the developments would leave the region without a "responsible, independent newspaper." The fallout to the community -- and the News-Press -- could be serious, Flacks said.

"To not have local news because the staff has disappeared or because the newspaper will simply be Wendy and Travis' rants is a real loss to the community," she said. "I hope that something will arrive to take its place, whether it's a daily newspaper or a website. It's desperately needed."

Sam Singer, spokesman for the 42,145-circulation paper, said that about 75 readers had canceled their subscriptions as of 3:30 p.m. Friday. Two reporters said they had been told by workers in the circulation department that the total was more than 90 before lunchtime.

Singer, who is based in San Francisco, said he was told that the newsroom on Friday was "quite professional" and that "things are moving forward nicely." He said Armstrong would no longer be writing editorials now that he was the publisher.

A day earlier, employees had shouted obscenities at Armstrong as he escorted the newspaper's editor, Jerry Roberts, out of the News-Press offices. The other journalists left soon after Roberts did.

The departing editors said McCaw was inserting herself into editorial decisions, violating standard journalistic ethics. They said the billionaire newspaper owner killed a story about Armstrong's recent sentencing for drunk driving.

They also protested management's punishment of a reporter and several editors for publishing the Montecito address where actor Rob Lowe hopes to build a mansion.

Reporters who remained on the job said Friday that Armstrong killed a staff-written story explaining why the five editors and columnist Barney Brantingham had quit the paper.

Instead, the News-Press ran a "note to our readers" at the bottom of the front page. In it, Armstrong said the journalists had left the newspaper because of "differences of opinion as to direction, goals and vision."

He promised that the newspaper would continue "to enhance our news coverage while maintaining both the standards of journalism as well as the standards of this community with respect to personal privacy, fairness and good taste."

The note didn't sit well with Steve Amerikaner, a prominent Santa Barbara land-use attorney and former city attorney. Santa Barbara is small, but it has a high degree of civic involvement and a sophisticated population that "deserves a first-rate newspaper," he said.

"You wouldn't have known there was something going on at the News-Press by reading the paper today," he said Friday. "You had to look at, oh, I don't know, the L.A. Times."

Amerikaner said the newsroom meltdown was the topic of conversation everywhere he went. At his local Starbucks, "I heard 12 different people talking about what was going on at the News-Press."

Downtown merchants are concerned about the fallout for business, said Marshall Rose, executive director of the Downtown Organization.

"We need a strong daily newspaper," Rose said. "Business relies on the News-Press to provide current events and as a print medium to advertise. To have the classifieds deteriorate in any significant way would be troublesome."

Rose, 62, said he grew up reading, and later advertising in, the News-Press, as did his businessman father. They knew all of the previous owners before McCaw, who arrived six years ago, he said.

"There have been changes, but they have been evolutionary, not revolutionary," he said. "This is a pretty dramatic upheaval."

On sun-drenched State Street, tourists and students filled trendy cafes and shops. Many local residents said they were unaware of the troubles at the newspaper.

But at Joe's Cafe, waitress Cathy McGee, 48, was distressed to learn that Brantingham was among the mass resignations.

"Barney quit? Oh, no!" McGee said, jaw dropping. "He's my favorite. He always stood up for the little guy."

McGee said she is no longer a home subscriber but that she reads the paper's local news each day at work. Now, she said, she will wonder whether what the News-Press is reporting is true.

"It's sad, because you don't have enough time to check things out at the City Council yourself," she said. "You depend on the newspaper to tell you that."

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