Organizers Count 220 at February 21 Rally, But Does McCaw Care?
Toward the end of the Wake Up Wendy Wednesday rally held at noon today, February 21, sportswriter John Zant (pictured) — whose firing after 38 years on the job at the News-Press has enraged Santa Barbara’s entire sporting community — explained that it’s a journalist’s job to “get it right.” Journalists don’t do it for the money, he explained, only to get the truth out there, so much so that his entire day was ruined if he woke up to find that he got something wrong. And so, when he looked back on the past eight months of newsroom carnage at Santa Barbara’s longtime daily newspaper, he wondered, “How can 41 journalists have been wrong?”
The obvious answer, of course, is that the journalists weren’t wrong, but that the News-Press management and owner Wendy McCaw are the bad guy bullies in this internationally followed newspaper meltdown. That’s what almost everyone in the watching world believes (except for an unknown but clearly miniscule number of anonymous blog commenters and about 60 of the newspaper’s 200 staffers who’ve signed pro-paper ads). And that’s why about 200 community members — the official organizer count was 220 at the peak — showed up at De la Guerra Plaza on Wednesday to declare their intention to get their paper back.
Along the way, rally-goers were treated to a handful of speakers and powerful, passionate rhetoric. Just a couple minutes after noon, the Bob Marley (“Exodus”) and Tom Petty (“Won’t Back Down”) songs gave way to organizer David Pritchett, a longtime city watchdog and clean water advocate who moved to Santa Barbara in his teens. Pritchett began his fiery speech by saying that he hoped this rally didn’t have to happen, a sentiment that was echoed throughout the rally.
Pritchett then ticked off a number of statements that started with, “I want a newspaper that…” He powered through a lengthy list of the News-Press‘ recent foibles, from putting a story about a questionable basil shortage on the front page and confuse editorial opinion with news reporting to firing longtime employees and suing journalists who exercise their free speech rights. (In one remark that was particularly telling about owner McCaw’s penchant for pitbull attorneys, Pritchett announced, with the subtle hint of a chuckle, “I want a newspaper that doesn’t sue anybody.”)
Pritchett, in another theme that rang again and again during the 75-minute lunchbreak rally, announced that the event was not to call for the newspaper’s destruction. Rather, he said, “We want our newspaper back…We want our daily newspaper of record to be restored.” He characterized the paper as “irrelevant” and its current business plan as “self-destructive” and asked the community to stop talking to the newspaper altogether, because doing so only gives the News-Press the “illusion of legitimacy.” “Stop enabling the bad behavior of the News-Press,” Pritchett asked, and then introduced city councilmember and history buff Brian Barnwell.
Barnwell — whose wife Camilla Cohee was one of the earlier escapees from the crumbling News-Press — was able to relate the human cost of the paper’s tactics by explaining that his wife was without a salary for three months. “We are still trying to recover from that,” he said, adding that this meltdown has resulted in a “very human loss” for former employees who no longer have work.
Barnwell then began listing off Santa Barbara’s myriad natural disasters over the past century. He mentioned city-smashing earthquakes, neighborhood-ravaging fires, and coast-contaminating oil spills, and surmised that, “The loss of the News-Press is in that category and yet the chronicler of our history is not recording these events….Our storied institution is dead.” The crowd applauded resoundingly.
Barnwell admitted that he’d been quiet about the News-Press meltdown until about two weeks ago because he feared the bullying tactics employed by owner Wendy McCaw and editorial page writer Travis Armstrong (pictured), who has an unquenchable desire to slay progressive, Democrat, and liberal politicians with vicious diatribes that appear as both official editorials and bylined columns. Barnwell was right too, because once he started speaking out, Armstrong went on the offensive, and began attacking Barnwell with vitriol.
That attack includes a column from today’s February 21 News-Press, in which Armstrong calls Barnwell moody, impulsive, a hater of free speech, and a long-shot for reelection. (As a sidenote, Armstrong and the News-Press management have clearly confused editorial writing with government watchdogging, which is traditionally, professionally, and effectively done by honest reporters who are trained in newsgathering. Personal opinions — especially uninformed, inconsistent, unconstructive, and vindictive ones such as Armstrong’s — do not count as newspapers holding governments accountable. That’s a job for the newsroom. As well, Barnwell’s chances at reelection would never be considered a “long-shot” by anyone who had any connection to the Santa Barbara community.) Armstrong’s February 21 column also tries to paint Barnwell’s wife Camilla’s departure as something less than what it was: an escape from the clutches of McCaw.
Despite the clear ramifications of his charge against the News-Press, Barnwell proudly declared, within earshot of Armstrong’s office, “We have to take back what is ours. It’s just not Ampersand [McCaw’s company] that owns that building.” He went on to say that it was not the building (pictured with “McCaw Obey the Law” sign) nor the name of the paper that the town once loved. It was the people, the journalists who reported the news. “They are the heart and soul and blood of that paper,” said Barnwell.
The city councilman was also successful in painting a picture of what the diminished News-Press staff has missed, explaining that there has not been a reporter watching the city council meetings for six weeks. “You folks don’t know what’s going on in the city,” Barnwell advised, adding the school board and county Board of Supervisors to that list. “You are missing your city’s history.” (Of course, we’d be remiss to not point out that The Independent provides ample news coverage of city, county, and school district decisions on a weekly basis, and now sometimes even daily, thanks to Independent.com‘s IndyNewsFlash, Barney Brantingham’s Tuesday On the Beat, and J’Amy Brown’s Wednesday Montecito Montage, among other online updates.)
Next up was Elizabeth Robinson, who works at KCSB and has run a community access TV show for 23 years. Her speech leaned more toward academic language as she read through excerpts of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for the use of trade unions. Robinson also compared the terminated N-P reporters to a Tunisian journalist who was banished to a remote region 500 kilometer from his place of work.
UPDATED PARAGRAPH, THURSDAY A.M.: The human rights references were also appropriate in that many former employees believe that the man videotaping in this picture is an agent of private security specialist Nick Montano, who works for the News-Press. Montano also allegedly, according to Craig Smith’s blog, tracked former advertising exec Sarah Sinclair and her colleague to a Las Vegas conference. On Wednesday night, February 21, at 9 p.m., Montano contacted this reporter via email to say that the allegation about Vegas “is a fabrication….Please retract your published fabrication immediately.” In a later email, Montano wrote, “If Sara [sic] or ANYONE said I was in Las Vegas after September 2006, they are LYING.” When asked to confirm or deny whether this videotaping agent was working for him, Montano responded, “I have no employees.” So who is this man? If someone can verify that this man is not working for the News-Press security in some other capacity than as an employee of Montano, we’ll happily take down the reference.
“Hot Dog Man” Bill Connell, owner of SurfDog, served as the everyday man of the rally, the normal, sports-loving dude whose life was turned on edge when John Zant got canned. “I’m here for John Zant and I’m really pissed,” said Connell, who was scheduled to give out hot dogs and lemonade but never, at least to this hungry reporter’s knowledge, did. “He’s my friend and he’s a fine human being.”
Connell asked for schools to stop submitting their stories, game results, and statistics to the News-Press “out of respect for John Zant.” He then pleaded directly to McCaw, who he asked to kindly reconsider her strategy: “This is not a war, Wendy. It does not have to be. Please don’t give us the answer of, ‘Let them eat cake.’”
The next speaker was “sports fan” Kathleen Rodriguez, who also happens to be Zant’s wife. She thanked the crowd for coming, noting that “for everyone one of you out there, there’s another 10 who wanted to be here, but they’re at work.” Holding back emotion the entire speech, Rodriguez talked a little about the young sportswriters who recently were picked up by the News-Press, but did not want to single them out by mentioning their names. She said, “I know that their hearts are broken and they are very distressed that their mentors have been turned out.” It was a nod to the fact that there is no longer mentors for anyone at the paper anymore, not to mention even a decent editor, since none of the more than one dozen former N-P staffers ever contacted by this reporter apparently liked working with Scott Steepleton (pictured).
Rodriguez then explained, nearly on the verge of crying, “My husband, and I say this with humility, is the institutional memory of local sports in this community.” She recalled the UCSB Women Gauchos game that came a few days after Zant was fired. When the couple walked in, they were greeted by “standing ovations from all sections” and a poster that said “We Love John Zant” signed by dozens of fans and players. It was a reminder that Zant’s firing has sparked News-Press hate in Santa Barbara’s large sports community, another testament to the idiocy of McCaw’s moves.
Rodriguez concluded her speech by saying that she thought the paper was cutting off its arms and legs since last July, but that when they fired her husband, it was the “cutting out of the heart.” The crowd agreed with applause, which continued in two additional waves when “the heart” took the stage.
Proving humorous, touching, and quite representative of the typical journalist (not in it for the money, mild-mannered, witty, and smart), John Zant eventually got to speaking about one of his idols, News-Press founder T.M. Storke. He cited Storke’s numerous quotations — such as “never mix business with editorial policy” — and concluded that “Wendy McCaw is no T.M. Storke.” As he stepped away from the stage, a spontaneous cheer erupted: “Bring Back Zant! Bring Back Zant!”
Before introducing the final few speakers and outlining Operation Cold Shoulder, organizer David Pritchett gave thanks to Ruby’s Cafe, the Mexican restaurant on De la Guerra Plaza that provided electricity for the day, continues to serve as a refuge for reporters, and was also the first advertiser in town to cancel it’s ads in the News-Press, which it did last July when the problem began. Gary Atkins Sound Systems was also applauded for giving the microphone setup.
The last slew of speakers, who came on as the lunchbreak crowd began to slowly disperse around 12:50 p.m., were the recently fired reporters. Melinda Burns began by saying she saw many familiar faces in the crowd. “Remember, the Gaviota Coast, Measure D, wastewater management,” she asked with a smile. “Those were the days.” Burns said that the fired employees remain confident that they’ll get their jobs back, but that “We’re waiting for the law to catch up with Wendy McCaw.” By that, Burns meant the National Labor Relations Board, which has already charged McCaw’s company Ampersand Publishing with labor violations and will likely be filing more charges in the near future.
Burns continued, “We are telling Wendy McCaw loud and clear that her way is not the Santa Barbara way. It’s not the American way….The News-Press story is not over. It’s an international scandal now, but we’re going to write a different ending.” Cue resounding applause.
Fired courts and crime reporter Dawn Hobbs (pictured) brought the meltdown into context, explaining that McCaw was setting “a dangerous precedent for newspapers worldwide” and that journalists throughout the planet are watching to see what happens. Hobbs said that the News-Press meltdown will be taught in journalism and ethics classes for years to come, which many in the crowd had probably never really considered.
Against the clock, Barney McManigal gave a short speech thanking the crowd and then Sue Broidy, of the Journalist’s Loan Fund, announced that there will be a Black Friday barbecue on April 13 at De la Guerra Plaza. (Meanwhile, Sue Hawes and James Broadhead, pictured here, began protesting outside of the newspaper’s front door.) And lastly, Pritchett announced that a petition was going around the crowd getting signatures to politely ask Macy’s to stop advertising with the News-Press, a move that will be continued with other businesses soon. Then Pritchett led the crowd in a chant directed at the “billionairess and bottled water connoisseur” (that would be McCaw and her fiancee/co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger): “Our Town Won’t Back Down! Our Town Won’t Back Down! Our Town Won’t Back Down!”
All in all, the rally was successful, if not quite the 300-person-strong crowd that organizers were expecting. Based on this reporter’s experience of covering events in Santa Barbara County for more than seven years, a rally this size and with this much applause and general interest is good evidence of community support. But is it enough?
The questions now become: Does Wendy McCaw care at all about the community? Does she care that she’s the laughing stock of the worldwide journalism community? Does she care that the federal government is after her? Does she care that she’s dismantling a historical institution? Is she mature enough to accept she’s gone down the wrong path, issue an apology, and start over? Is she even paying attention?