The newspaper in this seaside Southern California community isn’t just reporting the news these days. It IS the news.
Mass resignations, rallies and charges and countercharges of newsroom meddling and biased coverage have rocked the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Earlier this month, mounting tensions between the owner and staff spilled into public view, with nearly every top editor at the 41,000-circulation paper quitting in protest.
The reason they gave: Owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw was telling them what to print and what not to. McCaw shot back with a front-page note to readers saying those who quit were upset they could no longer inject their personal opinions into the newspaper’s coverage.
The tumult is the talk of this sunny Pacific playground where Oprah Winfrey, Michael Douglas and others from the rich-and-famous set have multimillion-dollar homes.
Among the area’s developers, and wine merchants, is actor Fess Parker, star of Disney’s “Davy Crockett” (and later TV’s Daniel Boone). He did not attend the recent protest rally outside the paper but says he objects to what is happening at the News-Press — even though his building projects have been among the paper’s targets.
“People who find themselves with extreme financial capabilities, they tend to find they can do what they want,” Parker said in an interview. “But to tamper with public opinion is frivolous.”
According to departed News-Press journalists, McCaw violated journalistic standards when she killed a story in June about the drunken driving sentencing of editorial page editor and current acting publisher Travis Armstrong. McCaw also reprimanded the staff for publishing the address where “West Wing” actor Rob Lowe wants to build a mansion, then quickly instituted a policy saying the publisher must approve the publication of any address.
From the staff’s perspective, McCaw had compromised their ability to report objectively and thoroughly, said Scott Hadly, an eight-year News-Press reporter who was among nine editorial staffers who quit over the past two weeks.
“She’s trashed her own newspaper,” Hadly said. “I can’t fathom why she did that.”
The reclusive McCaw was married to cellular phone pioneer Craig McCaw. When they divorced in 1997 she received stakes worth at least $460 million in Nextel Communications and Nextlink Communications, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported at the time. McCaw, 55, had no background in journalism when she bought the News-Press from The New York Times Co. in 2000 for a reported $100 million.
McCaw was out of the country Monday and unavailable for comment, according to her publicist, who provided a statement from her about the newspaper’s situation.
“I respect the traditions of journalism and believe the best way to run a paper is to hire good people and let them do their job,” McCaw said. “But when they don’t do the job according to our editorial policies, then it is my responsibility as owner and publisher to make whatever corrections are needed to get things back on track.”
She did not say what editorial policies she had in mind, but she told readers on Thursday’s front page that staff members who “appeared to use the News-Press for their own agendas decided to leave when it was clear they no longer would be permitted to flavor the news with their personal opinions.”
Among the first to resign was editor Jerry Roberts, who said the editorial section was encroaching on news coverage. Other editors followed.
On Friday, more than 300 people showed up for a lunchtime protest outside the newspaper’s Spanish-style building near the boutique-lined tourist drag. News-Press employees wearing duct tape over their mouths listened to chants of “Armstrong, resign!” and “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Armstrong said the crowd included News-Press enemies, among them developers and politicians. “Some of the people who attended the rally had political axes to grind,” he said.