Virtually since launching the Santa Barbara Independent in 1986 from the merger of a political newsweekly and an arts-and-entertainment listings publication, Editor in Chief Marianne Partridge and Publisher Randy Campbell have told anyone who asked that the paper was not really an alternative. Sure, it was a free weekly and a member of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, but it aspired to be the No. 1 source not only of leisure time listings, but of in-depth news in the picturesque Southern California resort town.
If that once might have been “delusional,” as Partridge laughingly puts it now, the purchase of the local daily Santa Barbara News-Press by mercurial billionaire Wendy McCaw gave the Independent a real chance to realize that ambition.
In the summer of 2006, after nearly six years of increasingly fractious relations with her own newsroom, News-Press owner McCaw not only handed the Independent the kind of juicy media story rare in small markets ? she also drove some of the paper’s best journalists to the Independent. The exodus started July 6 when News-Press Editor Jerry Roberts, protesting what he said was McCaw’s meddling with the newsroom, left the paper along with four other top editors and Barney Brantingham, the daily’s beloved columnist of 46 years. Over the next year, about 70 journalists would follow them out the door.
Brantingham and popular sportswriter John Zant were just the first of the journalistic gifts McCaw bestowed on the Independent. “We got a lot of their solid, longtime reporters,” says Partridge.
“Here’s the deal, I think: When you talk about the paper of record, you really are assuming that’s the paper that has the institutional memory,” she adds. “The fact is, it’s our paper that has all the institutional memory.”
As it happened, the Independent was just then ramping up its Web site (which this year won an EPpy Award in May for Best Weekly Newspaper-Affiliated Web Site). The rest of the newspaper industry came to see the paper as an indispensable source of information as the News-Press newsroom seemed to be imploding. “It was a brilliant moment,” Partridge says now. “It couldn’t have been more advantageous to us.”
Since the summer of 2006, between a union subscription boycott, some residents’ hard feelings towards McCaw, and the unavoidable headwinds of the newspaper economy, the News-Press has slipped in daily circulation to 35,000, while the Independent’s audited pickup every Thursday is 40,000. So which one is now the “alternative”?