Calif. Newspaper Battles Ex-Editors

Hundreds of area residents gather outside the Santa Barbara News-Press offices Tuesday to protest actions of the newspaper's owner that prompted several of its senior editors and columnists to resign.
Hundreds of area residents gather outside the Santa Barbara News-Press offices Tuesday to protest actions of the newspaper's owner that prompted several of its senior editors and columnists to resign. (Photos By Michael A. Mariant -- Associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006

SANTA BARBARA, Calif., July 19 -- A battle inside the local newspaper in this wealthy seaside town has turned into a citywide controversy, with hundreds of readers, politicians and activists protesting against the newspaper and the beleaguered owner threatening another paper, former editors and writers with lawsuits.

On Tuesday, a crowd estimated by Santa Barbara police at 500 massed in front of the Spanish-style headquarters of the Santa Barbara News-Press. The protesters accused the paper's owner, Wendy P. McCaw; its co-publisher, Arthur von Wiesenberger (the paper's food writer is also McCaw's fiance); and its assistant publisher and editorial writer, Travis Armstrong, of unethical journalism. Rumors have circulated in the town that local bigwigs were preparing an offer to buy the paper, which McCaw purchased in 2000 from the New York Times.

At a time when newspapers are losing circulation and struggling with the challenges posed by the Internet and other news outlets, the sight of demonstrators -- in shorts and shades, chugging bottles of designer water -- protesting for the local daily was unusual. "No News-Suppress" read the signs. "Wendy: Money Does Not Buy Everything." Local ownership of newspapers has become a hot topic in recent months with the breaking up of the Knight Ridder chain of newspapers, once the biggest in the nation.

Problems started at the News-Press last week when seven out of the newspaper's top eight editors and a popular columnist quit. The trigger, they said, came when McCaw stopped the paper from running a story in June about Armstrong's sentencing for drunken driving. The paper had run a notice about Armstrong's arrest, but a subsequent story that he had pleaded guilty and served four days in jail was killed. McCaw also reprimanded several senior editors after the paper printed the address where "West Wing" actor Rob Lowe is planning to build a new house, which has sparked controversy because of its size. Armstrong, reporters said, was also responsible for spiking a story about the decision of a local politician not to run for reelection because he wanted more negative comments about her.

McCaw countered last Thursday with a front-page letter to her readers in which she accused her departing staff of manipulating facts. The real reason they left, she wrote, was that they were blocking her efforts to improve the paper. She accused the departing journalists of trying to use the News-Press to pursue their own agenda. They "decided to leave when it was clear they no longer would be permitted to flavor the news with their personal opinions," she wrote.

McCaw and Armstrong forbid News-Press reporters to speak about the imbroglio, reporters said. Reporters followed on Friday with a protest, sticking duct tape over their mouths, and were greeted by 200 supportive demonstrators. A reporter, Scott Hadly, quit that day when Armstrong killed the story he had written about the demonstration, bringing the total to nine resignations out of a newsroom that includes 47 reporters.

McCaw also upped the ante when her attorneys sent letters to three former employees -- Executive Editor Jerry Roberts, Business Editor Michael Todd and popular columnist Barney Brantingham -- threatening legal action if they continued to speak publicly about the newspaper, according to reporters who had seen the letters. Brantingham has since joined the Santa Barbara Independent, the city's alternative newspaper, and wrote a long piece about the controversy. The Independent also received a cease-and-desist letter this week, said its editor, Marianne Partridge, after it published Hadly's story about the demonstrations that the News-Press had killed. Partridge said she complied with the order on the advice of the Independent's lawyers.

In an e-mail response to questions, McCaw said that she believes strongly in a free press and that the paper is "absolutely not for sale."

Saying that tension between the newsroom and management is healthy, she said she views the problems "as an opportunity to make the News-Press an even better newspaper." Also on Wednesday, she published another open letter in the paper, stating that "my responsibility as owner is to balance the needs of the paper, the business and journalism."

McCaw came into her fortune in 1997 when she received a divorce settlement reportedly worth at least $460 million from cellphone pioneer Craig McCaw. She had no prior newspaper experience when she bought the News-Press for a reported $100 million.

Since then, McCaw and Armstrong have distinguished themselves with their quirky editorial positions. Near Thanksgiving one year, she suggested that readers donate beans and rice, not turkeys, saying it was a healthier alternative. (McCaw is a vegetarian.) McCaw is also anti-growth, libertarian and an environmentalist -- campaigning against removal of feral pigs from the Channel Islands National Park.

Speaking on behalf of his ex-colleagues, Hadly told protesters Tuesday that a majority of the editorial staff had committed to forming a union and had demanded that McCaw and Armstrong reestablish a clear separation between opinion and news, invite the editors who resigned to return to their jobs, and negotiate a new contract with employees. Those demands were rejected, he said.

So far, an estimated 800 people out of an estimated 40,000 daily readers have canceled their subscriptions, reporters said.

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