TALKING LOUD AND SAYING WHAT? If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no reporter on hand to ask how it felt, did it really make a sound? Such questions come to mind when contemplating Santa Barbara’s ever-changing news-media scene, which increasingly is coming to resemble a hyperkinetic game of three-card monte. Or conversely, a slow-moving train wreck. Having abandoned any belief in the existence of The Truth, I no longer look to the news media to discover what that may be. But lies are ubiquitous things, and the news media can play a helpful role ferreting those out. More profoundly and mundanely, the news media can help a community — in all its fractured, fractious parts — talk to itself. And that is huge. But in taking the temperature of Santa Barbara’s news media these days, it’s hard to know where to even stick the thermometer. Since the Santa Barbara News-Press — which for eons functioned as the town’s journalistic center of gravity — melted down six years ago, the whole news universe has shifted dramatically. Since then, much of the community has simply tuned out the News-Press, but late last week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reminded us what that meltdown was all about.
Federal labor judge Clifford Anderson found Wendy McCaw and her management crew guilty of bargaining in such egregiously bad faith that words all but failed him. Anderson found management misconduct “sufficiently aggravated” and “so extreme” both at and away from the bargaining table that employees would have wound up with fewer rights and protections than if they had no contract at all. McCaw et al. illegally fired uppity employees to avoid dealing with the union. They hired temporary workers and freelancers to do the work of what should have been staff reporters who otherwise would have been eligible for union protection and representation. Anderson concluded that McCaw pursued a “calculated strategy to reduce the negotiations to a sham,” and that her bad faith “so infected the core of the bargaining process” that it could not be redressed by traditional remedies. Although McCaw can be expected to fight this to the bitter end, this is just one of a zillion NLRB rulings that have gone against her. News-Press workers can be faulted in hindsight for naïvely thinking that a supernova personality disorder can be addressed through collective bargaining. But questions of tactics and social justice aside, the whole town has clearly suffered by not having a credible daily newspaper.
Once again, for example, the News-Press seems poised to wage a jihad against Santa Barbara Police Officer Kasi Beutel and by extension the entire police department. Once again, freelance reporter Peter Lance is at the forefront of the fray, and he appears poised to drown us in yet another tsunami of incendiary words. For all I know, Lance may wind up being correct about everything he says. But given that his obvious intellectual brilliance is eclipsed only by the narcissism of his writing, I tend to have my doubts. So too, unfortunately, will many News-Press readers, half of whom have already voted with their feet and canceled their subscriptions.
The News-Press diaspora has spawned many journalistic efforts that have since come and gone. The Daily Sound, Santa Barbara’s perpetually underfunded almost-daily, has recently crumbled, and its satellite publication, the ill-fated Montecito Messenger, wasted little time living up to its nickname “The Mess” and collapsing, too. Josh Molina, the onetime News-Press star reporter who held down the fort at both, has since landed on his feet working for Assemblymember Das Williams. While the Mess set out to dethrone the Montecito Journal — well-known for its snarky conservative edge — the Journal is now spawning its own Santa Barbara variant — the Sentinel — a new weekly publication that reportedly will provide attitude-rich coverage of business and real estate news, among other things. In the spirit of faux competitive camaraderie, I recognize there are serious gaps in community news coverage and wish them well. But as someone forced by the recession to take a pay cut to continue toiling in the trenches of weekly journalism, I know that advertising revenues are tight and would prefer they didn’t exist. Nor has it helped any that The Independent remains embroiled in a draining do-or-die ownership battle between Editor in Chief Marianne Partridge and Publisher Randy Campbell. While Partridge has scored a series of seemingly overwhelming court victories so far, Campbell, always preternaturally stubborn, has filed an appeal, meaning more time, money, and creative energy will be sucked down a useless, fruitless rat hole. Times are tough. Even Peter Sklar of Edhat, a nine-year experiment in mixing community-originated blogging with pictures of palm trees and pets and actual news stories borrowed from other sources, is breathing seriously heavy. Last week, Sklar — who insisted he wasn’t about to pull the plug — asked readers, for the first time ever, to begin kicking in $1 a week.
Into this chaotic yawning breach, an especially determined group of schemers and dreamers have dared to tread, hatching plans to create a new nonprofit that would fill the void of labor-intensive, in-depth community reporting left in the wake of the News-Press downfall. Last week, this enterprise — led by former News-Press reporter Melinda Burns (fired by McCaw), Hap Freund (former head of Santa Barbara’s public-access TV station), and retired commie pinko sociology professor Dick Flacks — secured a $500,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which the Santa Barbara Foundation will now have to match. How this money helps produce the sort of news we all claim we’d like to see has yet to be seen, but I, for one, am most intrigued, and, given how hard this group has worked, most impressed. While Burns lacks McCaw’s millions, she is every bit as determined. I always suspected the endgame here would hinge on which of these two would be the last one standing. One thing’s for sure: If a McCaw falls in the forest, a very big noise will be made, whether anyone’s there or not.