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Summer of Discontent Heads for Fall

Feud between the News-Press staff and owner Wendy McCaw keeps Santa Barbara sizzling amid pleas to cancel subscriptions.

September 09, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Locals might remember the national championship brought home by the local amateur baseball team. Or the squabble over the size of actor Rob Lowe's dream home.

But the steamy summer of 2006 will almost certainly be recalled here as the time when a feud between billionaire newspaper publisher Wendy McCaw and her staff exploded into a cause celebre.

Two months after a mass resignation by its top editors, the Santa Barbara News-Press limps into fall with one-third of its news staff departed, workers and management in a tense standoff over a plan to unionize and several former editors and reporters threatened with legal action.

At a time when most American newspapers are fighting to bolster their credibility and expand readership, Santa Barbarans face an extraordinary spectacle: The News-Press' owner and its workers say they must take shots at their newspaper to save it.

Dissident journalists and a group of prominent citizens held a news conference this week urging readers to cancel their subscriptions. They said only a hit to McCaw's pocketbook would force her to stop tilting news coverage in favor of her allies.

Days earlier, the publisher's editorial page charged that it was the paper's recently departed editors who "failed readers" by allowing reporters' biases to infect the news pages.

The controversy has been regular fodder on Santa Barbara's local television news and in other papers in the area, with McCaw taking hits from all sides. The city's liberal political establishment -- often the target of negative editorials -- launched many of the complaints. But others have joined the chorus, including two journalistic luminaries who live in the area -- Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon and onetime network television correspondent Sander Vanocur.

Last week, the circle of disdain widened again, when 20 local religious leaders published a letter chastising the newspaper's management for ethical failures that the clerics said led to "an erosion in our ability to trust the reported news."

But McCaw and her top loyalist at the paper -- editorial page editor Travis Armstrong -- said they have been targeted largely because they have taken on local powers. A friend of Armstrong, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "There is probably something to be said for a paper that has an adverse relationship with the town mothers and fathers."

The journalists hope to vote by the end of the month on whether to unionize under the Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But no one expects the fight to end there.

"As 'The Terror' at the newspaper enters its third month, I sense a growing restlessness around town," Craig Smith, a local lawyer, wrote in a recent posting on his blog, which has recounted the newspaper's travails in painstaking detail. "People want their newspaper back."

McCaw bought the News-Press in 2000 from the New York Times Co. and newspaper analysts said that her fortune -- built on a divorce settlement she won from cellphone magnate Craig McCaw -- might insulate it from the staff reductions hitting other papers.

Questions arose almost from the start, however, about whether McCaw would honor the traditional boundary that separates a newspaper's owners from its reporters and editors.

The current crisis came to a boil after McCaw blocked publication of a story on Armstrong's drunk driving conviction and, on another occasion, reprimanded journalists for publishing actor Lowe's address -- something she called an invasion of privacy.

The disagreements boiled over when McCaw left for her annual summer cruise aboard her yacht in the Mediterranean and put Armstrong, 41, in charge of the paper. Many in the newsroom complained that oversight by the once-and-future opinion editor might blur the line between news and editorial opinion.

Editor Jerry Roberts returned from his summer vacation in Crete and promptly resigned, to be joined by the paper's managing editor, deputy managing editor, metro editor, business editor and Barney Brantingham, the venerable columnist whose 46 years on the job made him the public face of the News-Press.

Despite a bleak market for jobs elsewhere, the exodus continued into this week with the departure of the sports editor, design editor, seven reporters and four copy editors. That brought the total number leaving the News-Press to 19, from an editorial staff of 57.

The paper says it has hired an equal number of employees to replace those who have left. But critics say it's obvious that much of the operation has been turned over to raw rookies.

Particularly amateurish, they charge, were some features that ran over the long summer, including one that pondered how a devastated basil crop in Italy might affect local gourmands. Although Santa Barbara chefs said there would be no impact whatsoever, noting that their basil comes from Mexico, the News-Press splashed the story and a photo on Page 1.

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