Fire the Talent: In her 21 years at the News-Press, Melinda Burns was the best reporter and the most dedicated person I ever worked with. So Wendy McCaw fired her Friday. Why? The suspicion by many is that it was because Burns was a leader in the unionization effort. And the brain drain goes on. So far, nearly 30 editors, reporters, and designers have left since the meltdown began July 6.
“I’m going to fight it,” Burns told me. “Wendy McCaw has no legal grounds to fire me. This is retaliation for my role as a leader of the unionization effort in the newsroom.”
The union filed a complaint this week with the National Labor Relations Board on grounds that union retaliatory firings are illegal. The general feeling is that the News-Press cooked up some sham reason to banish Burns. Some believe the paper is trying to use the fact that the pro-Measure D campaign reprinted her balanced News-Press story in a mailer. The Measure D people apparently didn’t get permission from the paper, which vehemently opposes the initiative to raise the sales tax for county-wide transportation improvements.
Next in line as a candidate to be terminated or forced to quit is another union leader, police and courts reporter Dawn Hobbs. “There is no way the termination of Melinda Burns is going to deter or dampen our union effort,” a furious Hobbs told me. “In fact, it only makes us more united and more determined to see the effort through.”
Quitting in disgust last Friday was business writer Frank Nelson, a four-year veteran. Why? The same reason so many others have left, Nelson said: “The issue of separation between news and editorial opinion, Wendy’s interference [in the news], and the way everyone has been treated. In two words: Wendy McCaw. I wanted to stay for the vote,” he said, referring to when newsroom personnel recently voted 33-6 to affiliate with the Teamsters, a move McCaw has fought.
Last week, McCaw sued The Independent in federal court, claiming that the weekly was in possession of two news stories, one of which it had posted online — stories the News-Press felt unworthy of being published but worth filing a $100,000 lawsuit over. One was reporter Scott Hadly’s article explaining to the public (what a novel idea) what had transpired the day before. That was the fateful day of July 6, when editor Jerry Roberts, I, and others in the newsroom quit. Isn’t a newspaper supposed to cover itself with the same professionalism as it does the outside community? But it was killed. The other unpublished story had to do with Wendy’s $500,000 arbitration claim against Roberts. The Independent admits getting a copy of Scott’s story — there were copies floating all around town — and posting it, then removing it when the News-Press objected. But editors denied having the Roberts article. These articles, the News-Press claims, amount to “trade secrets” and The Indy’s obtaining them was “copyright infringement.”
In response to Wendy’s suit, Indy publisher Randy Campbell announced: “I would like to assure the powers that be at the News-Press, as well as the community, that it will take more than, specious, bullying tactics to silence us at The Independent.”
The upshot of all this is that the News-Press is no longer a real newspaper, only a fading version of what used to be, like a paper left on the driveway of a family on vacation for months. It can’t or won’t cover its own story and as a result has lost credibility as well as a talented staff, institutional memory, and the ability or will to cover major stories. It seems to exist chiefly as a vehicle for vengeance, a tool to attack its long and ever-mounting list of enemies, and as a lawyers’ launching pad to rain havoc on the careers and lives of journalists and their families without the financial means to fight back against a billionaire.
If I sound angry about all this, I am. But I’m also sad about this horrendous train wreck. I don’t want Wendy to run the paper into the ground. Santa Barbara needs a strong daily paper that prints the news without fear or favor and keeps editorial opinion out of the news columns. I’m dedicated to my new paper, The Santa Barbara Independent, but fervently wish that somehow, some way, the News-Press can at some point become at least a semblance of what it was last July 6. That will require a change of heart at the top.
I don’t know how long that will take, but at the rate the paper is foolishly shedding experienced staff and talent, it won’t be tomorrow. Good staffers remain, and Melinda Burns vowed to not only fight the unjust firing but return to the paper. Not many would want to, but she has dedicated her career to writing the news, in depth, about our county and considers it her professional obligation to continue.
For this, I salute her.