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.)


12 thoughts on “The Real McCaw*

  1. I agree with you on the “Environmental” spin to the paper to capture a niche that is completely underreported.

    But, Santa Barbara tends to gather quite a number of people, who have oodles of money, who look at things in life as “collectibles”…people, papers, staff, etc. They tend to bring these “collections” up in “polite talk” but they really don’t care or understand what makes them tick. I think the Snooze-Supress was just a little “trophy collectible” for The Wendy.

    And, just because she “claims” she is an environmentalist, doesn’t mean that she is completely so. Just because one throws money at causes doesn’t necessarily mean they actually care. I think her little charities are in her “collection” of things.

  2. Jillian, your comment suggests that despite the award-winning news coverage under Jerry Roberts, the News-Press wasn’t something the city was excited by. If I’m reading you correctly, then why all the fuss about losing these staff members? I know many Santa Barbarans feel Wendy McCaw is a strange personality, even an offensive one, but what matters is the quality of the product she’s putting out.

    Another thought, somewhat related: Do you think Wendy McCaw would be getting the same flak if she were a he? The world is full of obnoxious millionaires who own high-profile institutions: Newspapers, professional sports franchises, hotels. I think it’s fair to say that the eccentricities and excesses of personality-challenged female billionaires are far less tolerated than those of similar male billionaires. What do you think?

  3. C.W. Nevius or the SFGate (The Chronicle’s website) says the Santa Barbara News-Press soap opera has it all: mass resignations (five little editorial managers including executive editor Jerry Roberts) marched off the premises, and a howling mob of staffers screaming obscenities at the publisher. Nevius adds: “Owner Wendy McCaw and the News-Press look like small time operators, who think they can turn a public trust into a country club newsletter.

    Nevius who used to be a good sports columnist didn’t realize that The Chronicle is nothing but a country club newsletter for the San Francisco elite with society columns and front page opera, ballett opeings, the long standing Herb Caen page two columns (sometimes even page one) the gadfly Phil Bronstein and short-lived marriage to Sharon Stone, the major Sunday section is called Datebook (printed on pink paper for decades now just the cover is pink) and a reporter at large named Sean Penn who reports on New Orleans and Iraq with plans for Hollywood interviews in the future. BTW — The Chronicle and SFGate are owned by Hearst famous for Cosmopolitan, Esquire and other pop rags.

    See my blog at

  4. I found you article a interesting read and can make a few observations living here. The quality has gone downhill (fewer local news articles/no editorials) although that could just be a few bumps do to the lack of staff editors. It has caused a reaction where you actually are seeing more local news sources spring up in reaction to this from Daily Blogs linking to other local news sources to the other daily (m-f) expanding its editions. Suprisingly this small paper with just two -three staff writers are matching or beating the News press in local story output that is actually pertinant.

    I think the largest reaction of this is due to the “Local Institution” that the News Press has, the opinion editorial side has always been a bit off in its own tower and didnt have to practice common journalistic ethics because it was the least read section of the paper except when election time came near. The thought that Bill O Reilly might replace Jim Lehrer as anchor might cause the same type of howling from the masses.

    The news side has always been a different operation. (It was a NY Times paper for a long time) During the early days Ms. McCaw seemed content to leave the journalism to those whose job it was and enjoy playing with the opinion side trashing the Coastal Commission (without mentioning her own legal battles with them) the sheer depravity of consuming turkey at Thanksgiving and other such civic minded manifestos.

    The departure of Barney Brantingham the “local columnist/institution” and his parting bashes about the reasons for his departure being a polar opposite from those stated by the new editor in his front page explanation to readers thus raising the level of venom in the immeadiate aftermath. Her choices to lead Travis Armstrong who had the popularity of a FEMA offical in the Gulf Coast within the community, as well as her Co-Publisher/Fiancee Arthur Von Weisenberger know locally as “Nipper” (the paper’s restraunt critic best known for his operation as the owner of a wine emporium/cocaine den in the 80″s) didnt exactly inspire confidence in the new direction of the paper and also to a certain extent gave cover to some in the pitchfork crowd who had personal/political reasons to join the attack on their own version of Marie Antoinette.

    However it should also be pointed out that perhaps her greatest sin was that of assaulting a perceived local institution and treating it like a personal bauble whether she owned it or not. You cant pitch yourself as being part of the community and then tell them to eat cake at your discretion it tends to backfire. Especially in a town where the hatred of all things Los Angeles and its accompying lifestyle, has been elevated to a ingrained artform that makes NY/LA sniping look like a game of t-ball. Ms, McCaw seemed to go out of her way to rile the locals in this situation and truthfully if Brantingham had stayed it would have been a much easier storm for her to weather. And while I know she isnt from LA she fits the bill for a good portion of the population here where almost everyone has, or feels they do have enough sense and money, that they dont need to have a out of town billionare delivering “burning bush” edicts to them. The last person to do this at the level she chose to take matters was a out of town luxury auto dealership that singlehandly tripled the sales figures for Mercedes in nearby Ventura after comments by its owner soon after they arrived. The tail between the legs departure a few years later was roundly celebrated by the locals as they could now skip the 35 minute drive/self imposed exile to purchase a new benz.

    While its certainly not the end of the story it may be the 1st nail in the coffin where the entrenched population has again began to rally against the perceived interloper.

  5. Michelmaus,

    Thanks so much for this great, informative post. This story seems to operate at two levels (at least), which is why it’s so interesting to follow. You’ve given us a great account of the long-time Santa Barbara perspective. The difference between Wendy McCaw and the Benz dealer you describe is that the Benz guy probably needed to make a profit, where it is not clear that McCaw cares all that much about profit. She has eff-you money. But I don’t for a minute underestimate the power of SB’s elite to put the heat on.

    The part of the story that is of broader interest is this. Santa Barbara, like most cities, is a one-daily town. What happens when that one daily goes off the rails like the News-Press seems to have done? My hypothesis is, we will find out that the loss of that traditional news source will be compensated by new arrivals and new forms online. Will the new forms only minimally replace what was there, or completely replace it? The fact that the News-Press does so little with its online site makes the potential contrast even starker. The healthy choice that some newspapers have begun to make is to redefine themselves as providers of news — in print, online, written and video — rather than merely publishers of a physical paper. There is no sign yet that McCaw wants to take her paper in that direction, so perhaps a purely or mostly online source will emerge — taking advantage of the opportunity created by this turmoil.

  6. John:

    Just a bit more to add for you in terms of your response. I do have start by saying the News Press has been putting out good journalism they have had some great features on Mixtec Indians in the north county, The Michael Jackson Case, Jesse James Hollywood, the rise in Local Gangs, Gaviota Coast Issues, Meth, etc, etc.

    They have also “rented” a radio station which in letters posted online this week from the Mayor here has netted them a investigation from the FCC, due to the fact that Ms. McCaw may have skirted a few rules and that is now playing out as well which may be another case of a Synergy attempt being a cruel mistress.

    The tides of change role slowly here but the Santa Barbara Daily Sound the new other daily appears to be making some headway. They have upped production by a few thousand copies a day and just got a distribution deal that puts them at every major supermarket in the area. The Sound couldnt have asked for a better opportunity than this to make their play. ( a note since beofre this happened I used to be able to find copies of the sound every evening, tonight it took me going to 8 places to get a copy with the caveat it wasnt until after 6pm that I went looking)

    The Independent hasnt made any leaps yet but with blood in the water they may. Along that line the LA Times has been of late breaking news on this, and other stories in the area ( The NP story was among the top viewed on their site) and the Santa Maria Times and Lompoc Record may be looking to pick off the remaining customers the NP had over the mountain in areas like Santa Ynez, Buelton, Lompoc, and Solvang. In a era of shrinking readership for daily papers it would be logical to see pushes by others to expand their base with subscibers from this area.

    KEYT (the dominant tv station) has started to update their website much more often, and a popular local blog/newsletter has added a section of local daily news that they update since this Monday. In a sign of these times Edhat, the LAT, and KEYT beat the NewsPress yesterday on a big local story the loss of a local commercial fishing vessel off Santa Cruz Island and their content unlike the NewsPress is free…In addition local blogs are getting a bit more exposure during this period as those who are disenchanted search for more infromation on the News Press story and find more than just that local story is available through the online resources.

    I would also point out neither of the two large colleges (SBCC, UCSB) have their papers up and going right now what they may have tried to do to in regards to this story is one of the unknown factors of the shakeup. It is worth pointing out however UCSB’s Daily Nexus did do a online special on this where they got a few tidbits others didnt have, and the campus radio station had Jerry Roberts on as guest.

    It remains to be seen if the concentrated push to take advantage of this will happen at venues other than the Sound. However even if the other sharks dont bite the alternative resources “genie” is out of the bag to those who may not have found it for years. And if in Santa Barbara they follow the national trend toward this, it will expand the marketplace of choice while having a detrimental effect on the NP in its present form, no matter how slow and stumbling the march to those resources may turn out be.

  7. Pingback: From the Desert to the Sea… » Blog Archive » Santa Barbara, The Novel*

  8. If you live here and you DO read the SB News-Press, and you are a reasonably critical reader, you begin to note the amount of negative material that has been larded into what’s supposed to be “news.” This is especially true of anything to do with local politics. Consider, for example, a recent “news” story about three incumbents on the Goleta City Council announcing that they’re running for re-election. At least half the story was not about these candidates at all, but about the issues as the NP perceives them. Anyone who has been reading the NP for a couple of years knows of its vengeful bias against the majority of Goleta City Council, which it constantly savages as “slow-growth” or “no growth.” (Hey, that’s why we elected them, dummy!) This is just the opening shot in what will be a constant barrage, from now until November, aimed at the three Democrats running for re-election. It’s a rerun of the NP’s endlessly biased “news” reporting on the June race for County Supervisor, in which the NP repeatedly trashed two of the Democratic candidates, endorsed the third (the least likely to beat the Republican)–and did all this in front-page “news” reporting. (Well, mostly below the fold.) In a one-daily-newspaper in town, this matters. The LA Times does not cover our local politics, and the fledgling Sound hasn’t gotten to it yet, and the Independent has its own clearly expressed biases — so how do we get any reasonably objective, factual, non-slanted information about local issues, like development on the Gaviota Coast (facilitated by a shift in power on the County Board of Supervisors that was strongly endorsed by the NP). Thank God the NP’s circulation is less than half of South Coast households!

  9. Bottom line is;
    She is just another inherited billionaire that really doesn’t know a heck of a lot about running a business, newspaper business or any other.
    Many of her moves merely galvanized the employees, which in turn is jeopardizing her investment. She now is sitting on a newspaper that is likely less than it was.
    The issue really has nothing to do with buying a business and running it as you see fit.
    It has to do with buying or running something and making it more than what it was when you bought it either financially or journlisticly or both. Employee’s, professional ones at that, really have to endure a lot of crap before they really consider quiting.
    The college kid who is knocking out the Daily Sound has learned more about the newspaper business in one year than any Wendy McCaw will likely learn in her lifetime.

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