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In Santa Barbara, a Rally to Save the News-Press, and a Free Press

July 19, 2006|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

As reporter Scott Hadly peered out over the more than 500 people gathered Tuesday to protest newsroom changes at the Santa Barbara News-Press, he told the crowd that he was gratified -- and a bit surprised -- by the strong turnout.

"Journalists usually are regarded below lawyers in people's perceptions," said Hadly, 42, one of nine News-Press staffers who have resigned in recent weeks over ethical clashes with the paper's billionaire owner, Wendy McCaw. "This is just incredible."

During a 45-minute midday rally at which journalists, community activists and the mayors of three cities spoke, the crowd erupted into cheers whenever the journalists who departed were mentioned. Some at the rally walked over to a group of reporters who remain on the job, but have been ordered not to talk, to offer hugs and words of support.

Many at Tuesday's rally said they came to show support not only for the News-Press staff but for the larger issues at stake.

"The press in this country has been intimidated enough," said Ann Bermingham, a Santa Barbara teacher. "I won't let that happen in my community. If we don't have a free press, how do we know what's really going on?"

Added Bob Jordan, a Carpinteria resident: "It's like when businessmen cook the books. These people want to cook my local paper."

Andrew Kohut, executive director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said the percentage of people saying they don't trust or believe the news media is at its highest in two decades. But if you look at the numbers closely, a more complex picture emerges, he said.

"What the polls show is that local news is the news that the public is most connected to," Kohut said. "Despite declining news audiences, at least 40% of the public reads a newspaper on a typical day. And if you're focusing on local community news, a newspaper plays an even more dominant role."

Subscribers become attached to their local paper so long as it keeps up its end of the bargain by printing trustworthy information, said Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

"It takes decades to build up good will and trust," Nelson said. McCaw "has violated a trust between readers and her paper."

Indeed, the Santa Barbara community has lined up solidly behind the journalists who resigned. The former employees said that McCaw and her acting publisher, former editorial writer Travis Armstrong, were killing stories or ordering changes be made to them.

McCaw censured three editors and a reporter for printing the address of actor Rob Lowe in a development story, even though the paper at the time had no policy against doing so, the former employees said.

The paper killed a June story about Armstrong's sentencing for drunk driving, and Armstrong told a reporter to rewrite a story to make it more critical of a Carpinteria councilwoman whom he had taken to task on the editorial pages, the journalists said.

McCaw then appointed Armstrong acting publisher and gave him control over the news pages. On July 6, five top editors, including respected Editor Jerry Roberts and longtime columnist Barney Brantingham, walked out.

Armstrong killed a story that Hadly had written about the exodus, the reporter said. Instead, Armstrong ran a front-page editorial the next day characterizing the unrest as a family dispute.

As more people resigned, McCaw, who is vacationing in Europe, issued her own front-page statement, accusing the departed employees of injecting "personal opinion" into news stories.

The News-Press ran its first news account of the widening uproar on Saturday, nine days after the first defections.

At Tuesday's rally, loud boos erupted when speaker Marc Chytilo, a local environmental activist, informed the crowd that McCaw's attorneys had sent letters to two former editors and Brantingham, threatening a lawsuit if they continued to speak out.

"Shame! Shame! Shame" howled the crowd at De La Guerra Plaza, located next to the Spanish-style building that houses the News-Press offices.

Agnes Huff, a spokeswoman for the paper, said the attorneys' letters were not intended to silence the former News-Press journalists but to protect proprietary information that they might divulge.

"The News-Press, like all employers, has the right to request that internal matters remain within the company," Huff said.

As for the rally, McCaw "respects the right of all citizens to exercise the right of free speech and assembly," Huff said.

The paper is committed to providing high-quality journalism, she said, and will continue to do so.

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, one of three mayors who addressed the crowd, said regaining the trust of the community will be difficult.

"How do you get trust back? That's hard," Blum said. McCaw "might have to sell the paper."

Jonny Wallis, mayor of Goleta, and Brad Stein, mayor of Carpinteria, also made comments.

Hadly told the crowd that management had rejected the request of remaining staff members to form a union.

He also said that his former colleagues loved their jobs and worked up to 14 hours a day. They left only when it became clear that McCaw would continue to violate journalistic standards, Hadly said.

Rally organizer David Pritchett, a community activist, told the crowd that McCaw and Armstrong should restore the journalistic wall that traditionally separates the news pages from opinion.

"To paraphrase a very popular president from the 1980s, Ms. McCaw, build back that wall!" Pritchett said.

The crowd erupted in cheers.

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