On the Beat

Buying the News-Press? One of the first things Sara Miller McCune plans to do if and when she buys the Santa Barbara News-Press is fire Travis Armstrong. Not that embattled owner Wendy McCaw has any intention of putting the paper on the market, as far as I know. But this is how things played out when McCune got up to accept her News-Press Lifetime Achievement Award Saturday night at the Four Seasons Biltmore: By next year’s award ceremony, “I hope to be the owner of the News-Press,” the businesswoman and philanthropist told the audience.

I wasn’t there, but according to reports, she was greeted by gasps and nervous laughter, then the standing ovation by all three awardees. “Sold,” cracked MC Arthur von Wiesenberger, co-publisher and McCaw’s fiancé. Quickly followed by, “Just kidding, we’re having too much fun,” according to online columnist Craig Smith.

Then, as McCune headed to the bathroom, she was intercepted by the always-gracious editorial page editor Armstrong, who reportedly chastised her for “rude” and “inappropriate” comments. Cooler heads stepped in, but as McCune was leaving later, Armstrong confronted her a second time and repeated the remarks, she told me. Replied McCune to Armstrong: One of the joys of owning the paper would be “the great pleasure” of firing him.

Whether she will get a chance to enjoy ousting Armstrong is highly questionable, since McCaw displays no sign of putting the paper on the auction block. McCune told me that she made the remark because she wanted to be sure McCaw was aware of her interest. McCune said she’d sent a proposal to McCaw recently suggesting that they discuss a possible sale and work out a price, but had received no reply. McCune said she was honored to be chosen, selected by past honorees.

Not so “fun” is the firing of highly respected 21-year reporter and union activist Melinda Burns and business editor Edmond Jacoby, bringing the total of the departed to more than 30. Among those not in attendance Saturday night was Teamsters Union lawyer Ira Gottlieb, who’d shelled out $150 for a ticket but was kicked out of the dinner as a persona non grata. Ira insisted he planned no shenanigans.

Blogger Craig Smith wondered if it was really necessary to have entertainment at the event. Surprise guest Jay Leno did a very funny monologue that Smith guessed cost $75,000 to $100,000 and might better have been donated to charity. And, Smith noted, $75,000 is the approximate total raised for the entire News-Press Holiday Fund last year.

No Dream Home: Elaine Aver won the grand prize in the Santa Barbara Dream Home Raffle, but not the promised million-dollar house on the city’s upper Eastside. She got $200,000. That’s because the nonprofit running the raffle to benefit a Santa Barbara High School media arts program didn’t sell at least 15,000 of the full 18,000 tickets. It only sold 9,778 tickets at $150 a pop, bringing in $1,466,700, far less than hoped for.

Of the $1.4 million, the student program netted a disappointing $200,000. I wasn’t able to reach Aver, of Laguna Hills, to see how she felt about the result. Michael Jaffe, president of the sponsoring California Academy Foundation (CAF), which is composed of Santa Barbara High parents, said he’s heard of no complaints from her or anyone else.

I’ve heard of one—a resident who declined to be identified, who said that only after he bought a ticket and got an info packet did he see fine print that the house wouldn’t be awarded if fewer than 15,000 tickets were sold. As it is, after all 260 prizes were awarded, including three cars, and expenses paid, $400,000 remained, Jaffe told me. One Santa Barbaran won $25,000 and another $10,000.

The $400,000 was split, according to the rules, half to the grand prizewinner and half to the sponsoring CAF, the fund-raising arm of 150-student strong Santa Barbara High’s Multimedia Arts and Design Academy. CAF will turn over “a good check” to the school, Jaffe said, and use the rest for student tours and other support of MAD, the program’s acronym.

NP Prosecuted: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has decided to prosecute the News-Press for violations of federal labor law regarding the current newsroom unionization effort. After an investigation, the NLRB validated charges that NP management violated the law by canceling union activist Starshine Roshell’s weekly column and by obstructing and threatening to suspend a group of newsroom employees in retaliation for delivering a letter to McCaw demanding improved working conditions and an end to obstructionist tactics in dealing with the NLRB. The feds are also investigating the firing of union activist Melinda Burns.The Dish Breaks Off: Martha Smilgis, whose highly local, amusingly written, and clever column The Dish, was one of the remaining bright lights of the News-Press, has quit. Reason: Editors wanted more gossipy chatter. Smilgis, a seasoned journalist and ex-Time mag staffer, wasn’t willing to just dish the dirt. Her column was “too political,” she was told. The much-ridiculed new-hire reporter Vladimir Kogan has also quit.

You can reach Barney at 965-5205 or via He also writes a Tuesday online column at and Barney’s Weekend Picks on Fridays.

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