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One Sick Puppy

The latest Wendy McCaw tantrum occurred about a week ago when McCaw fired six of the paper's most experienced reporters for the all-purpose crime of "disloyalty."

By Nick Welsh, February 15, 2007

Sick and Tired:News-Press owner
Wendy P. McCaw is not content having merely a bee
in her bonnet. As befitting someone of her exalted status, McCaw
has a whole hive living there. Maybe this fact explains the
extraordinary longevity of a story — the sad saga of the
News-Press meltdown — that has more legs than a herd of
centipedes. This thing just won’t quit. When you think it’s safe to
take off a week to catch your breath, McCaw succumbs to yet another
fit of pique and ups the ante in some astounding fashion. The
latest outburst occurred about a week ago when McCaw fired six of
the paper’s most experienced reporters for the all-purpose crime of
disloyalty.” Their offense? They hung a banner on
a freeway overpass asking readers to cancel their subscriptions, an
action that is part of a broader campaign to get McCaw to recognize
last September’s 33-6 vote by newsroom workers to affiliate with
the Teamsters.

Gone are Dawn Hobbs, the paper’s
pedal-to-the-metal court and crime reporter; Barney
McManigal
, the local-boy-who-made-good covering the
convoluted antics of the county supervisors; and Rob
Kuznia
, the low-key but hard-working education reporter.
Summarily dispatched too are newsroom stalwarts Tom
Schultz
and Melissa Evans. These firings
constitute a self-inflicted lobotomy on the paper’s institutional
memory in a very substantial way. But they pale in comparison to
the self-destructive loss inflicted by the termination of sports
writer John Zant. Zant may not have been covering
sports back when Chumash Chief Yanonalit was playing stickball by
Burton’s Mound, but it feels that way. For 38 years, Zant has
written about local sports with consistent enthusiasm and
understated elegance that’s defied the laws of motion, gravity,
exhaustion, and occupational burnout. Somehow, Zant managed to keep
himself and his writing young by tapping into the drive and dreams
that animate athletes young and old.

When McCaw fired Hobbs, no one was surprised. Hobbs is a
hell-raiser by inclination, not really doing her job unless she’s
chewing on someone’s face. The real mystery with Hobbs was that she
managed to hold on as long as she did. But Zant — sweet and
self-effacing to a fault — was just the opposite. In his 38 years
of reporting, he connected with generations of athletes, their
teammates, and their extended families in a way that was truly
unique. When the News-Press fired environmental reporter
Melinda Burns a few months ago on the pretext of
editorial bias, McCaw succeeded in infuriating a large swath of the
activist community who thought Burns walked on water. With the
firing of Zant, the News-Press alienated a core of loyal
readers for whom loftier-sounding issues — like journalistic
ethics — seemed a little vague and esoteric. To many of these
readers, firing Zant was akin to taking Bambi out behind a barn and
slitting his throat with a rusty butter knife.

SPORTS FANS ARISE: While the
News-Press management sputters on about “lies,
misinformation, and spin,” Zant’s readers will know in their bones
such charges are the hallucinations conjured by a desperate and
angry soul increasingly out of touch with any reality other than
her own rage and self-importance. McCaw is correct about one thing:
Loyalty counts. When writers and reporters are loyal to their craft
and community, readers in turn are loyal to them. Already, the
backlash has begun. Mark French, coach of UCSB’s
very popular women’s basketball team, sent out a scorching email to
Santa Barbara’s community of basketball boosters denouncing Zant’s
termination and announcing that he, too, would be canceling his
subscription.

To state an obvious point, the big loser in all this is us. Sure
it’s fun to make sport of McCaw and her paper, but the fact is the
community needs a daily paper to be its eyes and ears. Elected
officials tend to behave themselves more if they know there’s a
reporter in the room. Newspapers can and do provide an effective
check to the unbalanced and unhinged ambitions of public servants
who’ve gone astray. But with the latest bloodletting at the
News-Press, The Independent now has the largest news staff
in town, with just 3.5 reporters. That’s crazy. In the meantime,
News-Press editor Scott Steepleton is
finding out the hard way to watch out what you ask for. Much
reviled as an energetically shameless collaborator, Steepleton now
has the unhappy task of putting out a daily paper almost
single-handedly. And it shows. When the paper is not feeding us
cotton candy stories about professors in love, we get so many press
releases issued by the police department and sheriff’s department
that law enforcement public information officers Paul
McCaffery
and Erik Raney — of the police
department and Sheriff’s department, respectively — should be
placed on the payroll and given a byline. It’s like someone snuck
in and stole the daily paper, and we’d like it back. And next
Wednesday, a whole mess of people who feel the same will be
congregating at noon at De la Guerra Plaza for a Wake Up Wendy
celebration.

In the meantime, I don’t pretend to know what makes Wendy
tick — or in her case, ticked off. But you’d think someone with so
many bees in her bonnet might be sweeter. After all, don’t bees
make honey? In Wendy’s case, apparently not. That’s okay, I guess.
She can always fire them, too. They might be the only ones left.

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