Barney’s On the Beat

Fire the Talent: In her 21 years at the
News-Press, Melinda Burns was the best reporter and the
most dedicated person I ever worked with. So Wendy McCaw fired her
Friday. Why? The suspicion by many is that it was because Burns was
a leader in the unionization effort. And the brain drain goes on.
So far, nearly 30 editors, reporters, and designers have left since
the meltdown began July 6.

“I’m going to fight it,” Burns told me. “Wendy McCaw has no
legal grounds to fire me. This is retaliation for my role as a
leader of the unionization effort in the newsroom.”

The union filed a complaint this week with the National Labor
Relations Board on grounds that union retaliatory firings are
illegal. The general feeling is that the News-Press cooked
up some sham reason to banish Burns. Some believe the paper is
trying to use the fact that the pro-Measure D campaign reprinted
her balanced News-Press story in a mailer. The Measure D
people apparently didn’t get permission from the paper, which
vehemently opposes the initiative to raise the sales tax for
county-wide transportation improvements.

Next in line as a candidate to be terminated or forced to quit
is another union leader, police and courts reporter Dawn Hobbs.
“There is no way the termination of Melinda Burns is going to deter
or dampen our union effort,” a furious Hobbs told me. “In fact, it
only makes us more united and more determined to see the effort

Quitting in disgust last Friday was business writer Frank
Nelson, a four-year veteran. Why? The same reason so many others
have left, Nelson said: “The issue of separation between news and
editorial opinion, Wendy’s interference [in the news], and the way
everyone has been treated. In two words: Wendy McCaw. I wanted to
stay for the vote,” he said, referring to when newsroom personnel
recently voted 33-6 to affiliate with the Teamsters, a move McCaw
has fought.

Last week, McCaw sued The Independent in federal court,
claiming that the weekly was in possession of two news stories, one
of which it had posted online — stories the News-Press
felt unworthy of being published but worth filing a $100,000
lawsuit over. One was reporter Scott Hadly’s article explaining to
the public (what a novel idea) what had transpired the day before.
That was the fateful day of July 6, when editor Jerry Roberts, I,
and others in the newsroom quit. Isn’t a newspaper supposed to
cover itself with the same professionalism as it does the outside
community? But it was killed. The other unpublished story had to do
with Wendy’s $500,000 arbitration claim against Roberts. The
admits getting a copy of Scott’s story — there
were copies floating all around town — and posting it, then
removing it when the News-Press objected. But editors
denied having the Roberts article. These articles, the
News-Press claims, amount to “trade secrets” and The
’s obtaining them was “copyright infringement.”

In response to Wendy’s suit, Indy publisher Randy
Campbell announced: “I would like to assure the powers that be at
the News-Press, as well as the community, that it will
take more than, specious, bullying tactics to silence us at The

The upshot of all this is that the News-Press is no
longer a real newspaper, only a fading version of what used to be,
like a paper left on the driveway of a family on vacation for
months. It can’t or won’t cover its own story and as a result has
lost credibility as well as a talented staff, institutional memory,
and the ability or will to cover major stories. It seems to exist
chiefly as a vehicle for vengeance, a tool to attack its long and
ever-mounting list of enemies, and as a lawyers’ launching pad to
rain havoc on the careers and lives of journalists and their
families without the financial means to fight back against a

If I sound angry about all this, I am. But I’m also sad about
this horrendous train wreck. I don’t want Wendy to run the paper
into the ground. Santa Barbara needs a strong daily paper that
prints the news without fear or favor and keeps editorial opinion
out of the news columns. I’m dedicated to my new paper, The
Santa Barbara Independent
, but fervently wish that somehow,
some way, the News-Press can at some point become at least
a semblance of what it was last July 6. That will require a change
of heart at the top.

I don’t know how long that will take, but at the rate the paper
is foolishly shedding experienced staff and talent, it won’t be
tomorrow. Good staffers remain, and Melinda Burns vowed to not only
fight the unjust firing but return to the paper. Not many would
want to, but she has dedicated her career to writing the news, in
depth, about our county and considers it her professional
obligation to continue.

For this, I salute her.


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