Santa Barbara Editor Who Quit Warns Others About Private Owners

By: Joe Strupp

Jerry Roberts, the former editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press who resigned last week in protest of the owner’s alleged meddling in news coverage, said the incident should be a warning to others who see a new wave of private buyers as the saviors for the troubled industry.

“There is definitely a downside,” Roberts, 57, told E&P late Sunday, just days after he quit the paper he had edited for four years. “When you have one owner who is very wealthy and used to getting their way, you have this conflict between the audience of the paper and the audience of one — the owner.”

Roberts referred to Wendy McCaw, who bought the News-Press from The New York Times Company in 2000. Although she had long used the editorial page to promote her views, Roberts said, efforts to influence the news pages had been fewer in the past.

“She was extensively involved with the paper, with the editorial page,” Robert said. “That was fine. She was pretty hands off on the news side when I was there, but that changed and became untenable.”

Roberts, a former editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, said the latest wave of private ownership buys and speculation of potential future purchases by local investors should be looked at carefully in the wake of the News-Press situation. He pointed to recent purchases of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. from corporate entities, as well as recent speculation that the Los Angeles Times might be sold to a local owner.

“With those kinds of successful, independent rich people looking to buy some newspapers, it has some resonance,” he said of his situation. “Here is a case study of how that can work — and not very well.”

Roberts is one of seven top journalists and editors who have quit the paper since Thursday. Several others in that group also warned that local owners are not always a better situation than corporate chains.

“I was pleased when she bought the paper, an independent owner not beholden to stockholders. It seemed like a plus,” said Don Murphy, the former deputy managing editor and a 19-year News-Press veteran who was the first to resign. “But she had no experience with newspapers, no knowledge of newspapers and it was not a traditional [private] ownership – handed down generation to generation.”

Columnist Barney Brantingham, a 46-year employee and columnist since 1977, agreed. “I call it amateur hour,” he said of such wealthy owners. “People who have money but don’t understand the profession of journalism. That is what is going on here.”

Roberts said the final straw, for him, appeared a week and a half ago when, while he was on vacation, McCaw appointed Travis Armstrong acting publisher, with oversight of the newsroom. “The editorial page is like The Wall Street Journal — we had been criticized by the editorial page for not covering certain stories in the correct way,” Roberts said. “When she appointed the editorial page editor to be in charge of news coverage, that was it.”

Murphy agreed, saying of McCaw and Armstrong, “it became apparent they were going to be very active in the paper.”

The newspaper on Friday published a Page One editors note that reported the resignations, but said they were based on “differences of opinion to direction, goals and vision.”

Roberts said many of the recent problems began in April when former publisher Joe Cole retired. Roberts said Cole, who had hired him, had long been able to offer a cushion between the owner and the newsroom.

“He had always been there and sort of been a buffer,” Roberts said of Cole. “But he left and she began to be co-publisher. Things began to get a little rocky.”

Roberts and others at the paper said McCaw had recently named her fianc?, Arthur Von Wiesenberger, as co-publisher. Cole declined to comment to E&P, while McCaw and Von Wiesenberger could not be reached for comment.

Several well-reported incidents began the fractured relationship between owner and newsroom, Roberts said, noting the discipline of editors for revealing an address where actor Rob Lowe had planned to build a home and a short item on a drunk driving arrest of editorial page editor Travis Armstrong.

But Roberts said the tension had occurred long before Cole’s departure, noting that he had often been forced to write explanatory columns reminding readers that the editorial page did not reflect the newsroom. “Very clearly, I felt several times that it had to be stated,” he recalled. “I would go out and I would talk to people and groups and that would be the first three or four questions. I had to explain that I didn’t have a role in the editorial page, and I think the reporters also heard it from sources.”

Since the resignations, the paper has had as many as 90 subscription cancellations, according to news reports, while many in the community are concerned that the paper might not be able to keep its credibility, according to the Los Angeles Times and others.

“The biggest issue is the hit in credibility,” Roberts told E&P. “Whether it has as much credibility is going to be difficult.” He also noted that the subscription decrease is a negative, but likely not any worse than the circulation problems plaguing the industry as a whole.

Roberts, who is married and the father of three, said he plans to stay in Santa Barbara and take some time off, with a hope of working elsewhere in news. “I’ve had some conversations with people,” he said about future opportunities, but declined to be more specific. “I want to figure out what to do.”

As for other newsrooms being eyed by private, local investors, Roberts reiterated his caution: “Make sure that you understand that the paper is there to serve readers and the need to delegate things to professional to do that. Either that or run like hell.”

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