Drip, Drip: The Bloodbath Continues

The Santa Barbara News-Press remains very much like the Titanic in frantic search of more icebergs in which to crash. In this regard, about the only thing that might save Santa Barbara’s oldest daily paper is global warming. Business reporter Hildy Medina concluded she could take no more and checked out last Friday. She’ll be talking a job with the same Hispanic Business publication now employing former News-Press editor Michael Todd, who was among the first wave of editors and reporters to resign five weeks ago.

In addition, News-Press management decided to consign popular columnist Starshine Roshell to the outer reaches of journalistic Siberia. Rather than mediating in her light, but thoughtful fashion on any number of domestic vicissitudes, Roshell will now be expected to find local hooks for a host of stories coming over the many wire services to which the News-Press subscribes. Starshine_Roshell%20pw.jpg Presumably the paper is not happy with Starshine’s insurgent sympathies. She was among the employees to show up a public demonstration a few weeks back wearing duct tape over her mouth (pictured at right) to protest the newspaper’s gag order about discussing internal News-Press matters with reporters from other publications, which at the time pretty much meant me. (I’m sorry she never got around to writing a column on how to best accessorize with duct tape and whether Target—the chain that Starshine once championed for the city’s airport property, much to chagrin of the Goleta City Council—had the widest array of colored duct tape colors.)

Other than Barney Brantingham’s and John Zant’s, Starshine’s column was one of the few personal voices cultivated and produced in the pages of the News-Press that enjoyed much popularity. For any newspaper, such voices are essential. For daily papers struggling to maintain their position and relevance, they are even more so. As such, the News-Press decision to deep-six Starshine’s column outright is a yet another example of cutting off their nose to spite the community’s face.

In an obviously related fashion, News-Press management sent out Dear John notes last week to all five of their community correspondents, notifying them—post-haste—that their services would no longer be needed. These weekly columns were designed to keep readers apprised of what’s really going on in the outposts of the Santa Barbara empire: Montecito, Goleta, Carpinteria, Santa Ynez, and Santa Maria.

The columns were the brainchild of former editor-in-chief Jerry Roberts—who resigned five weeks ago—and that might have been enough to seal their fate. A contributing factor may have been Montecito correspondent’s Stephen Murdoch’s August 3 piece in which he quoted someone else comparing News-Press owner Wendy McCaw to Leona Helmsley, New York City’s notorious hotelier and tax cheat whose nasty ways landed her in the hoosegow back in the ‘80s. Dubbed the Queen of Mean, Helmsley was so harrowing in her tempestuous quest for perfection that a professional wrestler borrowed her name to help solidify his bad guy credentials.

While no insinuation of tax fraud has attached itself to McCaw, other parts of the comparison clearly resonate. Maybe Murdoch’s crime was that he got it so right. Two weeks after his Leona piece ran, all the correspondents were summarily dismissed. My hunch is that the News-Press didn’t want to give Murdoch—a lawyer by trade—either the opportunity or the satisfaction of claiming a retaliatory dismissal, so they fired the whole crew. But that’s just a guess. Or maybe the columns were just too small-town and down-home for the cosmopolitan sophistication Wendy P and The Nipper. Maybe they want even more columns about how members of the intergalactic jet set can pamper themselves and recharge their batteries. I know it’s important that News-Press readers know all about all the spas in Vail, Colorado and other towns I hope I never visit.

For those seeking to read the tea-leaves, the message being delivered by the News-Press is pretty obvious: Screw You. For people who complained about the paper’s overriding lack of civility in its editorial voices, the News-Press is clearly turning up the volume. Witness the recent appointment of Dr. Laura. Although she has yet to resurrect any of her old chestnuts about gay people being “deviants,” I expect that she’ll soon give Travis Armstrong a serious run for his money when it comes to delivering the mean and the nasty.

Travis is right about one thing, however. What’s happening at the KEYT newsroom is a story. Travis’ interest in it, however, seems kind of self-serving: People who profess to be upset about the News-Press gag order are really hypocrites because they’re not jumping up and down over KEYT’s and therefore their criticism can be dismissed out of hand. For Travis, it’s always about calling someone else a hypocrite. But to the extent most people get their news from KEYT, as well as the daily paper, we’ve got serious problems.

A few months ago, station management—with the guidance of a media consulting firm out of Iowa—terminated news director Paul Verkammen. Paul was both a professional journalist and a local kid grown old. As a result, he brought a whole lot to the table. Then there was the strange, mysterious case of the disappearing weather babe. Frankly, I think they could do away with weather completely, and spend the money on reporters. But apparently, she left under less than pleasant circumstances.

And most recently, perennial news anchor Debby Davison appears to have been given her walking papers months before her contract was to expire. Again, I never bought into the very expensive cult of personality that attends most anchor people. The money could be better spent on content. But that’s not what’s happening here. The money will simply go away.

In the meantime, we still get phone calls and e-mails at The Independent telling us we need to go daily. I like that idea. I like the idea of going twice a week as well. But both would kill me in about 10 seconds flat. And everyone else working here.

Instead, our plan is to put down our crow-quill pens, enter the 21st century, and create a web page that actually has daily content and impact. Just doing this has maxed out our dilithium crystals, but slowly but surely we’ll be getting there.

Matt Kettmann has been named El Jefe del Mundo of this undertaking, which means we have a better than average chance of realizing our goals. A former news reporter here for five years, Kettmann spent the last year-and-a-half as pop culture editor. He’s also one of those infuriatingly unflappable guys who manages to keep his head while all about him people are losing theirs. Not only does he get a whole lot done without seeming to break a sweat, he’s got tons of good ideas. If you think you’ve got one where our web page is concerned, send him a line.

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