One Sick Puppy

The latest Wendy McCaw tantrum occurred about a week ago when McCaw fired six of the paper’s most experienced reporters for the all-purpose crime of “disloyalty.”

By Nick Welsh, February 15, 2007

Sick and Tired:News-Press owner Wendy P. McCaw is not content having merely a bee in her bonnet. As befitting someone of her exalted status, McCaw has a whole hive living there. Maybe this fact explains the extraordinary longevity of a story — the sad saga of the News-Press meltdown — that has more legs than a herd of centipedes. This thing just won’t quit. When you think it’s safe to take off a week to catch your breath, McCaw succumbs to yet another fit of pique and ups the ante in some astounding fashion. The latest outburst occurred about a week ago when McCaw fired six of the paper’s most experienced reporters for the all-purpose crime of “disloyalty.” Their offense? They hung a banner on a freeway overpass asking readers to cancel their subscriptions, an action that is part of a broader campaign to get McCaw to recognize last September’s 33-6 vote by newsroom workers to affiliate with the Teamsters.

Gone are Dawn Hobbs, the paper’s pedal-to-the-metal court and crime reporter; Barney McManigal, the local-boy-who-made-good covering the convoluted antics of the county supervisors; and Rob Kuznia, the low-key but hard-working education reporter. Summarily dispatched too are newsroom stalwarts Tom Schultz and Melissa Evans. These firings constitute a self-inflicted lobotomy on the paper’s institutional memory in a very substantial way. But they pale in comparison to the self-destructive loss inflicted by the termination of sports writer John Zant. Zant may not have been covering sports back when Chumash Chief Yanonalit was playing stickball by Burton’s Mound, but it feels that way. For 38 years, Zant has written about local sports with consistent enthusiasm and understated elegance that’s defied the laws of motion, gravity, exhaustion, and occupational burnout. Somehow, Zant managed to keep himself and his writing young by tapping into the drive and dreams that animate athletes young and old.

When McCaw fired Hobbs, no one was surprised. Hobbs is a hell-raiser by inclination, not really doing her job unless she’s chewing on someone’s face. The real mystery with Hobbs was that she managed to hold on as long as she did. But Zant — sweet and self-effacing to a fault — was just the opposite. In his 38 years of reporting, he connected with generations of athletes, their teammates, and their extended families in a way that was truly unique. When the News-Press fired environmental reporter Melinda Burns a few months ago on the pretext of editorial bias, McCaw succeeded in infuriating a large swath of the activist community who thought Burns walked on water. With the firing of Zant, the News-Press alienated a core of loyal readers for whom loftier-sounding issues — like journalistic ethics — seemed a little vague and esoteric. To many of these readers, firing Zant was akin to taking Bambi out behind a barn and slitting his throat with a rusty butter knife.

SPORTS FANS ARISE: While the News-Press management sputters on about “lies, misinformation, and spin,” Zant’s readers will know in their bones such charges are the hallucinations conjured by a desperate and angry soul increasingly out of touch with any reality other than her own rage and self-importance. McCaw is correct about one thing: Loyalty counts. When writers and reporters are loyal to their craft and community, readers in turn are loyal to them. Already, the backlash has begun. Mark French, coach of UCSB’s very popular women’s basketball team, sent out a scorching email to Santa Barbara’s community of basketball boosters denouncing Zant’s termination and announcing that he, too, would be canceling his subscription.

To state an obvious point, the big loser in all this is us. Sure it’s fun to make sport of McCaw and her paper, but the fact is the community needs a daily paper to be its eyes and ears. Elected officials tend to behave themselves more if they know there’s a reporter in the room. Newspapers can and do provide an effective check to the unbalanced and unhinged ambitions of public servants who’ve gone astray. But with the latest bloodletting at the News-Press, The Independent now has the largest news staff in town, with just 3.5 reporters. That’s crazy. In the meantime, News-Press editor Scott Steepleton is finding out the hard way to watch out what you ask for. Much reviled as an energetically shameless collaborator, Steepleton now has the unhappy task of putting out a daily paper almost single-handedly. And it shows. When the paper is not feeding us cotton candy stories about professors in love, we get so many press releases issued by the police department and sheriff’s department that law enforcement public information officers Paul McCaffery and Erik Raney — of the police department and Sheriff’s department, respectively — should be placed on the payroll and given a byline. It’s like someone snuck in and stole the daily paper, and we’d like it back. And next Wednesday, a whole mess of people who feel the same will be congregating at noon at De la Guerra Plaza for a Wake Up Wendy celebration.

In the meantime, I don’t pretend to know what makes Wendy tick — or in her case, ticked off. But you’d think someone with so many bees in her bonnet might be sweeter. After all, don’t bees make honey? In Wendy’s case, apparently not. That’s okay, I guess. She can always fire them, too. They might be the only ones left.

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