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Paper's Owner Blames Staffers

The Santa Barbara newspaper's internal turmoil was not a free-press issue, she says.

July 26, 2006|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

Firing the latest salvo in a battle that has shaken Santa Barbara and its daily newspaper, owner Wendy McCaw on Tuesday told readers that the internal struggle that led to the resignations of nine top staffers this month was not an issue of freedom of the press, but what she described as violations of the paper's policies and standards.

McCaw, a billionaire owner accused by departing staffers of meddling in editorial content at the Santa Barbara News-Press, wrote in the commentary published Tuesday that she had no plans to sell the paper. She also said that despite the turmoil affecting the newsroom, the News-Press, which has a circulation of about 41,000, had gained several hundred subscribers in July.

Some former staffers immediately expressed skepticism at the circulation contention and other statements by McCaw, which ran on the paper's editorial page under the headline "Setting the Record Straight." And Barney Brantingham, a longtime News-Press columnist who was among those who quit in early July, dismissed the statement as a "public relations commentary."

"The issues that she's talking about -- they should be writing news stories about them, instead of this PR commentary," said Brantingham, who declined further comment.

But another who joined the exodus, former business editor Michael Todd, offered McCaw a backhanded compliment, noting that a similar note to readers two weeks ago ran on the front page. "Thank God they're finally placing these things where they belong, on the editorial page," he said.

Simmering tensions between McCaw and employees at the 151-year-old newspaper erupted July 6, with the resignation of Brantingham and a number of top editors over what they described as the owner's improper involvement in news coverage. McCaw purchased the News-Press six years ago from the New York Times Co.

The journalists accused McCaw and new Publisher Travis Armstrong of killing stories and ordering unwarranted changes to others. Among the articles killed was one in June about the sentencing of Armstrong -- then an editorial writer -- for drunk driving and, more recently, an article by reporter Scott Hadly about the initial wave of departures. Hadly later quit too.

McCaw, who wrote in the commentary that she was responding to "misrepresentations, misperceptions, personal attacks and outright lies," said she supported a free press but said the conflict grew out of violations of the paper's policies. She had earlier accused journalists who quit the paper of using the News-Press to air their biases.

She also wrote that although she did not favor employees being represented by a union, which a number of the remaining staff members have requested, she would respect their right to make that decision.

Todd and other former employees reached Tuesday said that to their knowledge, an effort to ask the Teamsters union to represent News-Press staffers was moving forward.

They also expressed skepticism at McCaw's contention that circulation had grown. The owner said new subscriptions exceeded cancellations in July for a net gain of 406.

"I have no way of knowing, so I can't dispute it, but I have to say I find that statement suspect in the extreme," Todd said.

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