Santa Barbara, The Novel*

According to “BlogaBarbara,” there’s going to be a rally of disgruntled Santa Barbarans in front of the Santa Barbara News-Press building next Tuesday, July 18th. The them of the rally: “Build Back That Wall,” meaning the traditional separation between a newspaper’s editorial and business functions that News-Press owner Wendy McCaw is accused of erasing through a series of executive changes that seem motivated more by personal relationships than any kind of business or news judgement.

PR Week’s Hamilton Nolan has a column this week on the News-Press’ turmoil, echoing the LA media’s reaction, e.g. it’s an “acute reminder” that the rescue fantasy of a newspaper purchased by a local owner doesn’t always bring back happier days.

The issue has particular resonance right now, after The McClatchy Co.’s sale of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its tabloid cousin, the Daily News, to a coalition of local investors in Philadelphia headed by former PR man Brian Tierney.

To his credit, Tierney seems to have made all the right moves so far: making all the new owners sign pledges not to interfere with editorial operations, mending relations (more or less) with some at the paper who hated him from his days as a local attack dog on behalf of his clients, and announcing a whopping $5 million advertising campaign to boost readership at the limping publications.

Time, of course, will tell.

Nolan criticizes how the News-Press has handled its media and community relations, saying owner Wendy McCaw has “(tried) to use PR to obscure the situation.” He’s particularly rough on Sam Singer, a San Francisco-based crisis communications expert who has been spokesman for McCaw since the uproar began. Singer…

has seemed disingenuous in his statements about the incident. Asked if any ethical boundaries were crossed, he replied “none whatsoever,” though journalism professors and experts will tell you that a paper that mixes its news and opinion sections and fails to report honestly on itself is being unethical.

Singer also said the departed editors left because they “didn’t see eye to eye with ownership” on the issue of local news coverage; in fact, their very public complaints were much larger and more specific than that. He also tried to deflect questions by saying that one departed staffer was “on suspension for having threatened to kill another staff member.” After naming that person, he added piously, “So there are some other issues in play here that we would prefer not to discuss in detail.”

I wonder if Singer — himself a former newspaper editor — had anything to do with McCaw’s “note to readers” in this morning’s News-Press. Given what so many former employees have reported, it’s hard to decide if McCaw’s note is Orwellian or delusional. Kevin Roderick posted it on LA Observed; here’s an excerpt:

There are some disgruntled ex-employees who are making these matters public. Their media campaign manipulates facts to divert attention from the truth. They are attempting to make this situation appear something other than what it is.

When I purchased the News-Press, I had goals to improve the quality of the paper, to have accurate unbiased reporting, and more local stories that readers want to read. Our readers in Santa Barbara and elsewhere deserve nothing less. These goals clearly were not being met.

This requires journalists and editors to separate their personal feelings from their professional news judgment. Otherwise, the reader is ill served and journalistic integrity is lost.When news articles became opinion pieces, reporting went unchecked and the paper was used as a personal arena to air petty infighting by the editors, these goals were not met.

Some of the people who lost sight of these goals and 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.

Barney Brantingham, the longtime News-Press columnist, is featured on the cover of this week’s Santa Barbara Independent for his first-person narrative, “Why I Quit the News-Press.” Here’s a taste of it:

Ironically, until the last few months, these years working under the highly respected Editor Jerry Roberts and the great Managing Editor George Foulsham have been my best, my happiest, at the paper. And, even more ironically in view of the current travesty that has befallen the News-Press, this was during the ownership of Wendy McCaw. To her credit, she has always given me complete freedom to write. She has never interfered with my column.

But this idyllic time all came crashing down on July 6, last Thursday morning. Roberts arrived back from vacation to find his job as editor had been usurped by Travis Armstrong, the editorial writer and editor of the opinion pages of the paper. Roberts couldn’t ethically run a news department that was controlled by the opinion side of the paper, and so he submitted his resignation to be effective in 30 days. Always the professional, he was willing to stay on the job to assure that the paper would continue to get out and that the transition would be as smooth as possible. No way.

Instead, McCaw, with her fiancé and co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger, decamped in her private jet to areas unknown, leaving behind broken lives, a mangled paper, and Travis Armstrong as the acting publisher. Now Armstrong has the upper hand.

Armstrong, as many know, is a court favorite of McCaw and, as many have learned, is a dangerous man to anger. The author of countless poison-pen attacks on public figures out of favor with McCaw, he has become increasingly contentious and imperious. Now the time of reckoning came for the news desk. Hadn’t Roberts run a prominent story about Armstrong’s recent drunken driving arrest, when he had been stopped by police driving down Santa Barbara Street going in the wrong direction, with a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit? But when Armstrong was sentenced a few weeks later, the News-Press account of that story never saw the light of day. Only The Independent printed the information. Scooped again!

Last Thursday, I watched in dismay as Roberts was escorted out of his office by Armstrong. According to one witness, Armstrong barged into Roberts’s office saying, “I want you out of here now,” or words to that effect. This was quite a spectacle: A longtime San Francisco reporter and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, a journalist of the highest reputation in the nation, kicked out by Mr. Poison Pen.

Brantingham’s essay is accompanied by a “News-Press Timeline” that I found enlightening. (Scroll to the bottom of Brantingham’s piece.) The pivotal events took place back in April:

April 27: Publisher Joe Cole announced he was leaving the newspaper and severed all professional associations with owner Wendy P. McCaw so he could spend more time with his family. Cole’s announcement ignited a firestorm of speculation whether he quit or was fired. One of Santa Barbara’s most successful business attorneys, Cole also had served as legal counsel to McCaw and her Ampersand Holdings Co. He is credited with hiring Jerry Roberts — former executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle — as executive editor of the News-Press.

April 27: On the same day, McCaw announced she was appointing herself and her fiancé, Arthur von Wiesenberger, as publishers. The News-Press reported that von Wiesenberger — a bon vivant, food writer, travel critic, bottled water expert, and owner of the once-famous Montecito nightclub Nippers — edited his high school newspaper in Switzerland.

Meanwhile, I’ve been fortunate to receive two lengthy and astute comments from a Santa Barbara-based reader, “michelmaus,’ that are attached to my first post on this topic. Check them out. He seems very tuned in to how locals perceive McCaw:

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 (columnist Barney) 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.

This story has too many juicy angles! It’s an unfolding novel, almost worthy of Balzac. Or, if it had more sex, Danielle Steel.

(*Updated to include news of McCaw’s “note to readers.”)

One thought on “Santa Barbara, The Novel*

  1. Wendy McCaw’s improper use of the News-Press began long ago:

    http://www.seattleweekly.com/news/0122/nc-needle.php

    By James Bush

    “CELL-PHONE ZILLIONAIRE Wendy McCaw has made a somewhat rough transition from her Seattle life to her new role as a California newspaper owner.”

    “According to a recent piece by John Johnson of the L.A. Times, the ex-wife of McCaw Cellular’s Craig McCaw enjoys the power of the press. Since Ms. Megabucks took the reins, the Santa Barbara News-Press editorial page has trashed the state Coastal Commission, which, completely coincidentally, has been trying to establish a public beach along the shoreline of her 24-acre estate.”

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