On the Beat 2-8-2007

Will the Last News-Press Reporter to Be Fired Please
Turn Out the Lights?
 With the newsroom already down to a
skeleton crew, the paper this week canned six more key reporters.
How can the paper, already skinny on local news like an anorexic
hooked on a Jenny Craig crash diet, possibly claim to cover any
semblance of the news?

So far this week, the paper fired police and courts reporter
Dawn Hobbs, sports columnist John Zant, religion-culture-general
assignment reporter Melissa Evans, Goleta reporter Tom Schultz,
county government reporter Barney McManigal, and education reporter
Rob Kuznia. Illegal? Hell yes, say the journalists, citing federal
laws protecting the right to organize. “Disloyalty,” says owner
Wendy McCaw. This is all about McCaw’s “bare-knuckled” fight (in
the words of the union) to thwart efforts by the newsies to
unionize.

With the paper’s beat reporters banished, who’s going to write
the news? “No one is covering the City Council,” protested
Councilmember Brian Barnwell. Even though City Hall is just a few
steps from the News-Press building on De la Guerra Plaza, no NP
reporter was at Tuesday’s session, Barnwell pointed out.

Meanwhile the six journalists fired this week, plus
environmental writer Anna Davison, axed last week, and senior
reporter Melinda Burns, terminated in October, vowed to continue
the protests. They’ll display banners from freeway overpasses — the
action last Friday that got the six canned — every morning this
week. The banner reads: “Cancel Your Newspaper Today.”

After Tuesday’s loud protest in front of the paper, the
journalists asked the public to join them in De la Guerra Plaza
every day this week from 3 to 5 p.m., to back their right to
organize. “This is just the beginning,” Hobbs told the media at the
plaza. “Help us take your newspaper back.” Last Friday’s banner
demonstration was a “100 per-cent legally protected activity and a
First Amendment right” under federal law, Hobbs told me. “I’m sure
[McCaw] thinks this will make us all go away, but it [won’t]. She
can fire reporters but she can’t ignore the law. We started the
fight to return integrity to the newsroom and we’re not going to
back down. We all want our jobs back and we all want back pay,”
Hobbs said. She urged subscribers to cancel and for advertisers to
take their ads elsewhere.

The next step could be the National Labor Relations Board asking
a federal judge in L.A. to order that the six be rehired now. The
Teamsters Union has lobbied for months without results for the NLRB
to seek such an injunction, but the six firings did the trick. The
Teamsters filed federal unfair labor practice complaints against
the News-Press regarding this week’s firings, and federal lawyers
are due in Santa Barbara this week to interview the six, plus
Davison, Burns, and members of the News-Press, about the injunction
request.

Although some argue it was disloyal and wrong for employees to
urge readers to cancel subscriptions, a Teamster lawyer said that
due to the unionization effort, journalists had every legal right
to display the banner last week. Newsroom employees voted recently
33-6 to affiliate with the Teamsters.

“I think it’s a disgrace what’s happened to a treasured
institution,” said Councilmember Barnwell, often a target of
News-Press editorials. “The roots are deep” at the News-Press, he
said, mentioning the late crusading owner-publisher T.M. Storke,
whose family harks back to Presidio Days. “There is civic unrest”
about what’s happened at the News-Press due to the “whim” of one
person, he told a radio interviewer. “It’s an attack on the
town.

”The editorials, Barnwell said, are “diatribes, vengeful and
bitter.” Barnwell’s wife, reporter Camie Cohee, quit the paper
during the ongoing meltdown that began in July. The community needs
sound news coverage, “but we don’t have it,” Barnwell said.

Why, many may wonder, would people treated so badly by their
employer have any desire to go back to work for her? “We love this
paper,” Hobbs told me. “I love my beat and covering crime and the
courts. We started this fight to return integrity to the newsroom
and we’re not going to back down.”

Where will it end? And when? That’s what people on the street
are asking. My best guess: Expect more of the same. And then more.
Both sides show no sign of giving up the battle. McCaw has money,
lawyers, and the bully pulpit of the paper on her side to cover the
story or not. She shows no intention of selling the paper. The
journalists have federal law, gutsy determination, and the
Teamsters’ deep pockets on their side.

Look for more hearings, charges, appeals, and delays. Drawing
things out and ousting union leaders one way or the other is a
time-tested tactic in union busting. Lest we forget, it worked for
the New York Times when it broke the old News-Press union.

One former top editor who left a few years ago predicts that at
this rate the paper will eventually become a slim husk of itself,
catering mostly to Montecito.

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