Six More Writers Are Fired, Leaving Three in Newsroom
by Martha Sadler
A week after reporter Anna Davison was fired, a half-dozen of her colleagues went before work to the Anapamu Street pedestrian bridge above Highway 101, holding a banner over the side that read, “Cancel your newspaper today!” That was on the morning of Friday, February 2. The following Monday, reporters Dawn Hobbs, Rob Kuznia, and Barney McManigal were called one by one into a conference room where associate editor Scott Steepleton and an attorney asked whether they had taken part in the banner display. Each answered yes and was handed a brief letter explaining that they were being terminated for disloyalty.
Up in the newsroom, a fourth reporter — religion writer Melissa Evans, who had also participated in the overpass action — saw what was happening. She finished the story she was writing — about a Chinese version of a play about Martin Luther King Jr. — with the famous King quote, “Thank God almighty, we’re free at last,” and waited for her turn to be called.
Evans was not fired that evening, but she did receive an early morning call from a friend tipping her off to the fact that her computer was being removed — a sobering and silent process, repeated each time an employee leaves, that according to police reporter Hobbs resembles a coroner’s removal of a body from a murder scene. Arriving at work at her usual time, Evans discovered that her key card no longer opened the door, and when she was admitted to the Santa Barbara News-Press building, it was only to be fired along with reporter Tom Schultz and sports columnist John Zant, both of whom had also participated in the overpass demonstration. Zant had worked at the News-Press for 38 years.
That brings to 37 the number of writers, editors, production, and business staff who have left since last July, when disagreements over editorial content and managerial style erupted in the first wave of firings and resignations, many of which were followed by court battles over union organizing activities. The total includes advertising director and union supporter Sarah Sinclair, who quit Monday night at about the same time that the reporters were fired. A total of 17 news reporters have been terminated, two of whom had been hired since the July implosion. At Indy press time, the only reporters still on staff were Nora Wallace, who reports on the North County; business writer Maria Zate; and Leana Orsua, a recent hire.
The firings came as a shock, if not a huge surprise, to the six writers, who said they met before the demonstration to make sure that they stayed within the bounds of federal labor law. “In pursuit of a labor objective, employees have the right and the privilege to inflict economic harm on their employer,” said Teamsters attorney Ira Gottlieb, who noted that such actions are protected as long as they are performed peacefully. The banner display was intended, in part, to pressure McCaw into recognizing the employees’ 33-6 vote in favor of joining the Teamsters union, which McCaw has refused to do on the ground that organizers allegedly intimidated some employees into voting yes. The fired writers filed complaints Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board, whose own attorneys are already pursuing wrongful termination cases against the News-Press on behalf of previously fired employees.
Barry Cappello, whose law firm is representing the News-Press in these terminations, said the employees’ banner display was not only intended to harm the employer but demonstrated “ill will and disloyalty.” No employer, he said, would countenance that. Federal labor law draws a fine and squiggly line between what is and isn’t permitted. It is a line that the demonstrators were apparently trying to toe, Cappello said — noting that they avoided naming the News-Press as the paper that motorists should cancel their subscriptions to. Cappello said they missed the mark. Asked whether boycotts are legal under federal law, Cappello would say only that the banner display could not be characterized as encouraging a boycott, as it said nothing about union organizing.
Whether the overpass display encouraged a boycott, the fired employees are now planning to target News-Press advertisers, asking them not to patronize the paper. In addition, they will be outside the newspaper’s offices, in De la Guerra Plaza, for the rest of the week from 3-5 p.m., to disrupt work and keep the heat on. On Tuesday, at the first of such demonstrations, fired journalists, who very much wanted their jobs back, chanted “McCaw, obey the law!”