Hard to Believe: It’s been five years since I walked out of the Santa Barbara News-Press newsroom where I’d worked for 46 years.
Today, I have no regrets whatsoever about giving up my column, paycheck, and window office. Oh, I could have stayed and collected my salary while all about me was plunging into an ethical chaos and top editors were quitting in disgust.
After all, owner Wendy McCaw wasn’t on my back. But I’d just returned from vacation that first week of July, 2006, and found that my co-workers were being unfairly harassed and punished, just for honestly covering and editing the news.
McCaw’s celebrity friends were more important than ethical journalism. After hearing the horror stories of all that had transpired while I was gone, I began packing up my things. When executive editor Jerry Roberts—a fine journalist who had been a top political reporter, and then managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle—returned from his vacation that fateful Thursday and quit along with other top editors, I knew it was the end.
I picked up my remaining item, a lamp I’d brought in, and went home. I talked with my wife, Sue, and e-mailed in my resignation. In the months to follow about 70 others quit or were illegally fired.
Circulation plummeted and what was once a proud, fine small-city newspaper cannot even be called a newspaper any longer, not because we’re not there but because journalistic standards don’t exist on De la Plaza any longer. This is not only a tragedy for those who lost their jobs but for the community as a whole.
When I quit I had no future plans. Somewhere in the back of my mind I figured on living on our savings. But to my surprise, I got a call the next day, July 7, from Marianne Partridge, editor-in-chief of The Independent, asking me to consider joining the staff. It came out of the blue.
I was happy to do so and I’m honored to still be part of an excellent newspaper that lives up to its name. There aren’t many of us—“we happy few,” as Shakespeare put it in another context.
After the meltdown began, the News-Press newsroom decided to organize to protect the staff from its rampaging owner and voted to affiliate with the Teamsters. Soon eight reporters were fired for their union activities—an illegal act, a National Labor Relations Board administrative judge ruled, and he ordered them reinstated.
But with plenty of money at her disposal, McCaw has appealed this and many other findings that she broke federal labor laws. It has been argued that she has a right to run her newspaper as she wishes, even run it into the ground; but she’s also doing it in blatant defiance of the law.
Her union-busting efforts will be the subject of a July 28 De la Guerra Plaza rally marking the five-year anniversary of this never-ending dispute. I wish I could say that we’re seeing the light at the end of the legal tunnel. But because McCaw and her millions are taking advantage of weak labor laws, a shorthanded NLRB board, and her right to appeal, the fired reporters are still awaiting a return to work and for her to begin bargaining in good faith.
Yes, it is a mess. One that didn’t have to happen to our town and to what was a fine newspaper. The toughest job on a newspaper, I think, is that of the owner-publisher. He or she must allow reporting “without fear or favor,” as the late owner T.M. Storke used to say. Even when your pet causes don’t get preferential treatment or your Hollywood friends complain . It takes courage. I wish she’d see the light.
See you all on July 28.