The Real McCaw*

santa-barbara.jpgThe soap opera at the Santa Barbara News-Press has been enjoyable reading. I’ve been following it via LA Observed and the LA Times. It’s hard to follow what the News-Press is saying about itself, because all of the relevant content is behind a pay barrier, but according to LA Observed, in the wake of reporters and editors quitting in protest, the News-Press’ spokesman issues anodyne public statements about differences of opinion being respected but sometimes requiring a parting of the ways. Classic spin, in other words, that makes the paper’s owner, Wendy McCaw and her new management look even worse.

The point has been made in many places that this kind of upheaval is what LA Times employees might get if a local plutocrat like Eli Broad, David Geffen or Richard Riordan buys the paper. Members of the journalistic fraternity apparently believed Wendy McCaw’s philanthropic commitments — the environment, animal rights — roughly equated to her agreement with traditional notions of journalistic independence. Thus, at first, her purchase of the News-Press from the New York Times Co. was hailed — just as a Riordan, Broad or Geffen purchase would be hailed here in LA.

It has come as both a shock and a disappointment to reporters in Southern California that McCaw would insert herself into the editorial process so aggressively, and on such eccentric matters like how the word “blonde” should be used. But Wendy McCaw is a human being, not a corporation. Corporations have policies that, for better or for worse, constrain emotions, interposing process between whim and act. Human beings, especially wealthy human beings, don’t have the same filters.

So when actor Rob Lowe called McCaw, allegedly to complain that the coverage of his planning commission fight to build a really big house in Montecito revealed his address, I imagine McCaw thought he had a point. Rich celebrities have special security needs. It’s not an unreasonable request, especially coming from a nice guy like Lowe who also supports the environment. So, henceforth, no more publication of Lowe’s address, no more publication of anyone’s address without her permission, lest another worthy millionaire be made to feel paranoid.

rob-lowe.jpgThe newspaper’s staff objected, of course, that if you’re covering a planning commission controversy, the address is the point of the story. Zoning rules are address-specific. The main complaints about Lowe’s plans were coming from his neighbor. This was a public proceeding, and Lowe’s address was on all the public documents associated with it. Leaving out the address makes no sense, journalistically. If Lowe wanted to maintain his privacy, he should’ve settled with his neighbor quietly. But since he’s asking the local government to exercise discretion on his behalf, Lowe became fair game. At least, that’s how a typical editor would see things. McCaw disagreed, however, and she rocked some careers in the process — quite unfairly, it is clear.

Likewise with the coverage of her newly appointed publisher’s DUI; McCaw apparently believed one story about it was enough, and didn’t want to see a second. The newsroom took this as censorship. McCaw raised the stakes further by giving this same publisher authority to oversee editorial content. That triggered a series of principled resignations by some of the paper’s most respected editorial staff; and the organization of a pitchfork brigade to stand outside the McCaw castle, demanding a return to journalistic norms.

I was all ready to join this brigade, philosphically, until I got bugged by this comment by SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius:

The upshot? McCaw and the News-Press look like small time operators, who think they can turn a public trust into a country club newsletter. Roberts and the editors come across as paragons of journalism, standing up to bad bosses, censorship, and dumb editing. And everyone else around the country gets a good laugh.

Mr. Nevius: McCaw doesn’t just “think” she can turn the News-Press into a country club newsletter. She can. It’s hers. It’s not a “public trust.” A courtroom is a public trust. A national park is a public trust. The principle of press freedom is a public trust. But a newspaper will never be a public trust, not unless the government buys it — and I doubt any self-respecting reporter would want to work for a government-run newspaper, although I could be wrong about that.

Looking back at journalistic history, we’re taught to revere bold individuals like Otis Chandler who took control of news organizations and made them better. The bold individuals who take control of news organizations and make them worse tend to be forgotten, but there were probably more of them. The point is — Wendy McCaw’s got the right to choose what she wants to lose money doing. One person’s laughing stock is another person’s passion.

If Wendy McCaw wants to edit the News-Press herself, she can do that. If she wants to spike every story that makes a friend look bad, she can do that. If she wants to turn the front page over to the Audubon Society, that’s her right. If she wants to run weather reports that say it’s raining when the sun is shining, she can do that. McCaw didn’t use her billions to buy the paper and then turn it over to a foundation to run. That might’ve been a good idea, but she didn’t do that. She put herself in charge.

mccaw-and-newspress-representatives.jpgI believe one reason the media establishment has worked itself into such high dudgeon about the News-Press is, at first, McCaw played the dream date role to the hilt. When McCaw bought the paper, part of the appeal was, “She’s so rich, she won’t care if we lose money.” That’s nirvana to newspaper folk. It means they can hire the best — and the News-Press did that, bringing Jerry Roberts down from the San Francisco Chronicle. It means they can cover more stories. It might even mean they can get paid more. McCaw’s ownership initially provided a vision of salvation for other newspapers with hellhounds on their trails. Now, Wendy McCaw is being seen as a cautionary tale for those who pray for a wealthy knight to salvage the LA Times, the San Jose Mercury News or other important publications from the grip of cost-cutters.

So much of the coverage of News-Press turmoil is journalist-centric. Reporters are covering the story from the standpoint of what it would like to be a reporter employed by Wendy McCaw. But reporters aren’t the only stakeholders here. For readers — in Santa Barbara and elsewhere — this might be an opportunity. With falling circulation an almost universal condition for newspapers, many see the classic newspaper format fading into history. Maybe now that Wendy McCaw has dispelled any illusions that she’s planning on running a museum-quality publication, someone will talk her into doing something completely new and different.

Start with her environmentalism. There is so much significant environmental news that never gets covered in the mainstream press; news that, to my mind, transcends the stale dichotomies, business vs. nature, that inform most environmental stories. (If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m drawn to gee-whiz stories about how environmental imperatives might make the future more interesting. Kite-powered freighters anyone?)

If Wendy McCaw wanted to turn her newspaper brand (including its online version) into the world’s leading destination for the coverage of environmental issues, with an editorial policy that aggressively reflected her point of view, she’d have that niche almost to herself. “Santa Barbara” is the perfect name to associate with such a publication, given the historic significance of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill in galvanizing changes in environmental policies worldwide.

Another way to go would be to launch a laboratory for Citizen Journalism. That city must have the highest percentage of under-utilized intelligence of any city in America, with so many early retirees and their spouses and kids hanging out in ranchettes and seaside palaces, cashing their dividend checks instead of doing what made them rich in the first place. There must be at least a few such persons who would be fit the profile of the Citizen Journalist; talented writers who care enough about their communities to monitor local goverment and other institutions, and blog about what they learn. Another source of good minds with not enough to do is UCSB. The News-Press could give new writers an on-line home.

If there’s a market for the kind of coverage of Santa Barbara that the News-Press traditionally provided, it will be filled; either by the Santa Barbara Independent, or by a new venture. Or perhaps by the News-Press itself. Despite the personnel moves, has anyone noted a diminution of the newspaper’s quality since the uproar? I don’t read it, so I don’t know.

Anyway, this is Wendy McCaw’s moment in the spotlight. I hope she does something interesting with it. She might or might not have a master plan, but she’ll have time to develop one. After all, it’s her baby now, and she can do just what she wants with it.

*Apologies to Graham Parker. Also, edited 7/9 p.m.

(UPDATE 7/11. Life goes on for the News-Press, apparently.)