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Black Friday

A Year Later, Barney Wonders if the NP Meltdown Could Have Been Avoided


Black Friday: One year ago today, July 6, 2006, all hell broke loose at the Santa Barbara News-Press. After 46 years, it was my last day there.

On the Beat

No one expected, or could have expected, that the fires of Hades would melt down a fine newspaper and cause so many mass resignations and firings.

No one wanted it, least of all, I feel sure, owner Wendy McCaw. It’s been one horrible year for this town and just about everyone involved.

As panelist Lou Cannon said on KCRW’s radio forum this past Tuesday afternoon, the NP staff meltdown was unprecedented in American journalism.

Could it have been avoided? I have great doubts. But, a former News-Presser speculated to me his week that McCaw could have stepped in after the first wave of resignations and worked to stop the hemorrhaging.

How? By sincerely pledging to stop interfering with the news, urging the staff to rally around a new, respected editor, and giving the remaining staff the hope of constructing a wall between opinion and the news, he suggested.

The staffer, a respected, veteran reporter, said he would have held off his resignation to see how that worked out. But instead of a charm campaign to keep the staff together, McCaw remained on vacation in Europe, he pointed out.

By Paul Wellman (file)

Wendy McCaw

So he quit, with no job prospects in line. (Although he did find a job with another daily.)

Although the volcano erupted on July 6, 2006, tensions had been building up like tectonic plates grinding together before that final blast of energy sends out shock waves. You had a strong-minded owner unable - or unwilling - to avoid causing confrontation with the newsroom, versus journalists with ardent views of professional ethics.

Given McCaw’s temperament, ideology, and increasing interference in the newsroom - including her outrageous and unfair disciplining of journalists over the infamous Rob Lowe affair - it’s hard to see how the meltdown could have been avoided.

When top editor Jerry Roberts returned from vacation a year ago today and found that McCaw had left on a European vacation and put controversial editorial page editor Travis Armstrong in charge of the newsroom, he gave his notice.

He was none too politely shown the door. His leaving, “was basically a dispute about ethics,” Roberts said on Tuesday’s radio forum.

But the newsroom had already seen the writing on the wall. A couple of key editors quit a day or so before. I e-mailed my resignation in a few hours after Roberts left, not in sympathy with a man I respected so highly, but because I could see the entire news operation sliding downhill; an ethical avalanche I could not stomach.

Many were surprised that I quit. I wasn’t under the gun. I suppose I could still be working there, keeping my head down and somehow trying to ignore what was happening to my colleagues and the newspaper I loved, leaving my self-respect in a jar at the door.

But I had to leave. I fully expected to start living off my savings. Happily, instead, I got a call the next day from Marianne Partridge, editor in chief of the Santa Barbara Independent, which led to me being hired as a columnist.

Others had no such soft landing and are still looking for work. The floodgates were open and now around 50 people have left or been fired, mostly from the newsroom.

As Roberts cracked during the KCRW forum, “I was in journalism for 32 years and no one noticed until I left.”

The overriding issue here is whether ownership of U.S. dailies, transitioning from professional news chains to individuals who have little or no knowledge of journalistic ethics and responsibility, is resulting in a throwback to the old days when whims of an owner controlled not only what was on the editorial page, but the front page as well.

The News-Press case also exposed the fact that federal laws aimed at protecting the American worker are tissue-paper weak in the face of a wealthy, determined employer.

The National Labor Relations Board has accused McCaw of labor law violations by firing eight reporters months ago. But while they scramble to pay bills, the NLRB won’t even set foot in trial until Aug. 14 over these and other unfair labor practice violations.

Then what? Months, perhaps years of delays and appeals? Commented one local attorney not involved in the case, “Her majesty will delay all proceedings into eternity. The case will die of old age before any judge is allowed to determine the equities and make a determination correcting the effect of the discharge.”

Newsroom logo

But the fired journalists remain optimistic. They wrote on their Santa Barbara Newsroom webpage: “The outcome of this case will have repercussions well beyond us eight reporters. It will be watched by journalists, pressmen, newspaper owners and union members across America. “Can an immensely wealthy woman - a bully with a big bank account - lay waste to a public trust and fire union supporters with impunity? Or will she have to obey the law and stop interfering in news reporting, as the rules of ethics require?

It is illegal in America today to retaliate against workers who are organizing a union to obtain a fair employment contract. Contrary to what News-Press readers may have been led to believe, the federal government is prosecuting the News-Press for at least 15 violations of this basic right.”

Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns forThe Independent on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.

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