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In Santa Barbara, News-Press has become the paper of rancor

More firings, more protests: Fallout from the owner's showdown with her staff runs deep.

February 10, 2007|Scott Martelle | Times staff writer

SANTA BARBARA — After seven months of intense drama -- firings, walkouts, boycotts, legal challenges and a union drive -- the simplest measure of the impact here from billionaire Wendy McCaw's showdown with her newspaper staff is told by Johnny Morosin.

Someone Morosin knows died recently, and he didn't find out until a few days later. Like countless others, Morosin no longer reads McCaw's News-Press, so he missed the death notice.

"Now I don't know all the little stuff I used to read," Morosin, 44, said as he rang up lunch-crowd customers at his family's Italian & Greek Market near the newspaper's downtown building. "It'll never be the same.... It's just a crying shame."

Earlier this week, six more members of the News-Press staff were fired for "disloyalty" after holding banners on a freeway overpass backing a union boycott of the paper. On Wednesday, investigators from the National Labor Relations Board were in town, taking affidavits for yet another complaint that McCaw had fired workers for union activity.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
News-Press: An article in the California section Saturday about fallout at the Santa Barbara News-Press said journalist Susan Paterno was based in Fullerton. She lives in Rossmoor.

Perhaps more significant, John Zant, a popular sportswriter with 38 years at the paper, was among the latest dismissals, an action that outraged the local sports community, which until now had largely ignored the controversies.

"John is an icon," said Barbara Bartolome, a local scrapbook shop owner and ardent fan of UC Santa Barbara's women's basketball team, which Zant covered. "You touch John, and you're breaking a lot of people's hearts."

Of an editorial staff that former workers say totaled 54 people at the start of last summer, 38 have been fired or have quit since July, when internal tensions exploded over how the paper had covered the DUI arrest of its own controversial editorial-page editor, Travis Armstrong.

The ramifications have been broad. It has been a godsend for the Daily Sound, an upstart paper; the Independent, an alternative weekly that has ramped up its online delivery with as-it-happens updates of local news; and for bloggers like Craig Smith, a law professor whose previously ignored "Craig Smith's Blog" about local news peaked this week at 2,200 daily unique visits.

But the cost has been high. In a small city, the local newspaper serves as the surrogate town square, where events are reported, analyzed and debated. Though the News-Press has filled a few slots, fired staffers this week counted only two reporters, one of them a recent hire, on a local news staff that a year ago totaled 14.

"A lot of us miss having a local paper, and that's true for people who have canceled their subscriptions, and who are still getting it," said George Relles, 58, a strategic consultant who has been a regular attendee at anti-News-Press demonstrations.

It's hard to find McCaw defenders here. Even those who don't closely follow local news have taken a side in the dispute, based as much on class as philosophy, a sense of righteousness and the populist perception of the sanctity of the right of free expression.

(McCaw has declined to talk about the controversy in the media, and e-mail requests for comment by current News-Press editors for this story went unanswered.)

Some people who posted comments on local blogs defended the right of owners to run their businesses as they see fit -- "even if they have the character of Cruella De Vil," as one put it -- but then cited the special role a newspaper plays in a community.

Mike, posting on the sports website GauchoLocos.com, said he is generally anti-union but that he viewed the News-Press showdown "a bit differently and a bit more sympathetically. It's not about the traditional labor grievances ... but more about journalistic freedom."

But it's also hard to find outward expressions here of anti-McCaw sentiment. A few houses, cars and businesses sport "McCaw obey the Law" signs. But for most, the passions that drew several hundred people to protests last summer have calcified into resignation. Demonstrations this week drew only about 20 people, most of them fired staffers.

Two key elements stand at the heart of the issue: the sense that McCaw has treated her staff unfairly, and that she has used her paper to reward her friends and attack her enemies. (Her surrogates have accused The Times of slanting its coverage, saying it's a business strategy to invade her circulation area.)

McCaw has filed a lawsuit against Fullerton-based journalist Susan Paterno over an unflattering portrait in American Journalism Review and ordered her lawyer to send "cease and desist" letters to local small businesses that displayed the "McCaw obey the Law" signs.

The American Civil Liberties Union and dozens of local lawyers objected to the letters, and last month Paterno asked an Orange County judge to throw out McCaw's suit under the state's "anti-SLAPP" law, enacted to protect people from legal challenges meant to silence them.

"She has shown that she is very happy to lose millions of dollars in the effort to prove a point," Geoff Green, executive director of the Fund for Santa Barbara, a local grant-making foundation, said before the most recent firings.

That economic reality is not lost on Dawn Hobbs, a News-Press veteran police reporter who was among those fired Monday. A single mother and union activist who has a 17-year-old son, Hobbs is hoping for a speedy resolution by the National Labor Relations Board, which is reviewing a union request to seek a court injunction reinstating the fired workers.

"We want to stay here and fight this out ... [but] none of us are independently wealthy," Hobbs said earlier this week after marching for two hours outside McCaw's paper. "This is, of course, her strategy."

scott.martelle@latimes.com

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