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Joe Cole on the stand

Paul Wellman

Joe Cole on the stand


When It All Hit the Fan

Behind the Front Pages


TALE OF TWO PAPERS: It really was The Week That Was. First, a court decision in favor of Editor in Chief Marianne Partridge in her lawsuit over ownership of The Independent. Then feds spanked Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw for “an extensive campaign of retaliatory conduct” against the newsroom union.

Even the heads of nonreaders were spinning. A journalistic twofer. How come what happens behind the front pages is often more intriguing than what’s up front, even for people who have long since given up the printed page in favor of scanning a computer, tablet, or cell phone for news?

Barney Brantingham

For one thing, this is still a small town, and those who know the players, or of them, find the gossip fascinating. Who’s up and who’s down? There’s also the element of schadenfreude — pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, deserved or otherwise.

There was a widespread feeling of barely suppressed delight when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued an opinion slamming McCaw, probably the town’s least popular resident. She detests unions with a passion and now has been — once again — found in violation of a laundry list of federal labor laws and ordered to rehire eight reporters she illegally fired. (All this on hold pending her appeal.)

But the schadenfreude might be on the other foot if she wins at the federal court of appeals. Estimates of how long the appeal process will take: at least one or two years.

Speaking of appeals, The Indy is waiting to hear whether Publisher Randy Campbell will challenge Superior Court Judge Denise de Bellefeuille’s ruling. De Bellefeuille ordered him to follow through on his offer to sell his shares of the paper to Partridge. Campbell owns 51 percent of the shares.

Attorney Joe Cole — who stepped into the breach with a $1.3-million unsecured loan to Partridge in 2009 to prevent Campbell from selling his majority shares to a chain of substandard weeklies — could become publisher after the smoke clears.

Even before the July 2006 News-Press meltdown, tension between McCaw, Cole (who was then News-Press publisher), and then editor in chief Jerry Roberts was at the breaking point, according to the NLRB opinion filed last Thursday.

Oddly, the disputes seemed mostly about environmental issues. Few stories satisfied ardent animal lover McCaw, according to memos quoted in an earlier NLRB judge’s opinion, whether the stories were about killing pigs on Santa Cruz Island or fear of coyotes. She mistakenly felt that the newsroom was thwarting her, and her rage mounted.

Cole was a buffer between McCaw and the newsroom. After he left, in April 2006, a couple of incidents helped instigate the meltdown. As cited by the NLRB, one was when McCaw killed a brief follow-up story about controversial editorial writer Travis Armstrong’s DUI. The second incident involved actor Rob Lowe, a friend of McCaw.

At a Planning Commission meeting, there was a neighborhood dispute over Lowe’s proposed Montecito home. A News-Press reporter covering the hearing talked to Lowe and wrote a story mentioning the address, as was routine. Later that day, Lowe phoned Armstrong asking that the address be omitted for privacy reasons and because of his small children. Armstrong, instead of walking a few feet into the newsroom with the request, sent an email to an editor.

That message never got through to the editors on duty. The story ran, and Lowe’s representative phoned to complain. Although there was no rule about not printing the addresses pertinent to such agenda items, McCaw sent letters of reprimand to the reporter and several editors.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was McCaw’s naming the abrasive Armstrong to be acting publisher — never mind the traditional wall between opinion and news — on July 3, during Roberts’s early-July vacation. Two days later, the managing editor and assistant managing editor quit. On July 6, Roberts returned and resigned, sending a memo to McCaw calling the reprimands “unjustified” and disagreeing with her killing of the Armstrong DUI brief. Her recent actions, Roberts said, were widely perceived as “hostile to loyal employees and violative of fundamental principles of public interest journalism.”

I quit the same day, after 46 years at the News-Press, along with other editors.

None of this had to happen. We were putting out a fine paper and getting even better, had an excellent young staff, and were winning prizes.

It takes a certain temperament to run a newspaper, along with respect for readers, journalistic traditions, and ethics. What happened at this small daily newspaper in our little corner of California is a painful case history for journalism classes everywhere.

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