Fired Santa Barbara Staffers Launch News Web Site

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By: Joe Strupp

Eight former staffers of the Santa Barbara News-Press, who claim they were illegally fired in the latest dispute at the embattled paper, have launched a new Web site of their own, where they plan to cover local stories until they get their jobs back.

Dubbed “Santa Barbara Newsroom,” the ad-free site, at www.santabarbaranewsroom.com, launched Monday with stories about local issues such as school relocation plans and property taxes, as well as a few editorial columns.

The news site’s staff includes Anna Davison, Melissa Evans, Dawn Hobbs, Rob Kuznia, Barney McManigal, Thomas Schultz and John Zant, all of whom were fired earlier this year from the News-Press after hanging a banner over a freeway urging boycott of the paper. Reporter Melinda Burns, also on staff, was fired last year.

“We’re engaged in this effort as an interim project until we get reinstated to the newspaper,” said Hobbs. “That is what we do, we cover journalism. This is a way for us to resume doing what we love doing, and continue to cover the community.”

Burns agreed, adding “for now, we are excited about being back doing reporting.”

In a related development, Burns wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, published Monday, which discussed the need for legislation that would protect efforts to unionize.

News-Press spokeswoman Agnes Huff could not immediately be reached for comment on the new Web site Monday.

The reporters are hopeful that they will get their jobs back after the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint in March that determined the paper acted improperly in firing the staffers.

The complaint also contends that the paper violated union organizer’s rights by issuing negative performance evaluations against several of the leaders, prohibiting them from wearing buttons on the job that promoted unionization, and from placing signs in their own vehicles. In addition, alleged threats by News-Press attorney A. Barry Cappello were deemed to be in violation of the employees’ rights.

The complaint accuses the paper of “coercively interrogating employees, verbally and in writing, about their union or other protected concerted activities.” NLRB officials also requested a review to determine if a Section 10 (j) injuction be imposed, which would temporarily block further firings or other actions against News-Press workers.

The complaint now goes before an administrative law judge for review. No date has been set.

The Graphics Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which was voted in to represent newsroom employees last fall, filed the NLRB charges in February. The union also is financing the Web site, Hobbs said, but did not say how much of an investment was involved.

“We are the ones who decide what gets covered,” Hobbs said about the site, which is expected to include a regular video news cast in the next few weeks. She said the site had more than 1700 hits by 10 a.m. PDT Monday.

The former employees’ Web site is the latest event in a long-running battle at the paper between newsroom workers and owner Wendy McCaw dating back to the July 6, 2006 resignation of several editors, including top editor Jerry Roberts, who claimed McCaw was interfering in newsroom decisions.

Since then, 38 employees have either quit or been fired, the newsroom has voted in the Teamster unit as its representative, and various NLRB complaints have been filed by both sides. McCaw also sued a reporter for the American Journalism Review for libel after she wrote an article about the dispute.

The NLRB issued a previous complaint in December that found the News-Press engaged in unfair labor practices and improperly sought to discourage union activities. The complaint, prompted by a string of employee charges filed with the NLRB in recent months, cited several examples of anti-union actions at the paper, including the suspension of several employees and the previous firing of former reporter Burns. Those charges are expected to be heard along with the newest complaint.



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