An attempt by the Santa Barbara Clergy Association (SBCA) to create a dialogue between the affected parties in what was euphemistically referred to as the “situation” at the News-Press was hindered by the absence of any current NP staffers or management Sunday afternoon. Though the open forum discussion at the First United Methodist Church was attended by nearly a hundred members of the community as well as fired NP reporters Melissa Evans, Dawn Hobbs and John Zant, SBCA president Teena Grant explained at the outset that the paper’s higher-ups and representatives had declined to attend.

Grant read a letter from NP co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger that recalled how previous statements from Barry Cappello – lawyer for NP owner Wendy McCaw and Ampersand Publishing – has resulted in further charges being filed against the paper by the Teamsters Union. Von Wiesenberger’s letter concluded by saying that management would reconsider the offer when the legal action has “run its course.”

In spite of – or perhaps because of – the no-show, the allegedly objective discussion tended to lean in favor of the fired reporters. For example, as Grant introduced Evans, Hobbs and Zant, she included the date on which each was “illegally fired.” Since the merit of their respective terminations would seem to be the crux of the “situation” – and the legal battle spawned from it – the language used went a great deal to characterize the sponsor’s opinions. Then again, since no members of the NP staff identified themselves – even when Grant asked the audience if perhaps any had snuck in and might want to speak – the point may well have been moot.

Arthur Gross-Schaefer – a professor of marketing and business law at Loyola Marymount University and a rabbi at the Shul of Montecito – articulately defended the SBCA’s involvement in matters at the NP by historically citing the importance religion can play in such ethical disputes and conflicts involving authority figures. He described a journalist’s job as being “an ancient prophetic tradition” and reminded the audience that the First Amendment protects both the press and the religious, as either group could desire to express ideas not generally accepted by the rest of society. Gross-Schaefer noted that if the NP management questions the motives of the SBCA in organizing the event, they may do so out of a misunderstanding of what clergy’s responsibility to its community is – perhaps because they lack good reporters, he joked. Gross-Schaefer also noted that he had personally asked a NP reporter to cover the event, but the reporter declined, he said, because she was “scared to be here.”

Gross-Schaefer further explained that he views the relationship between a community and its newspapers as analogous to a marriage. “We as a society pledge to support and protect our newspapers: In turn, the newspapers pledge to be honest.” In this train of thought, he claimed that though Wendy McCaw and the NP shareholders may be the legal owners, “the biggest stakeholder in the paper is the community.”

Each of the three fired NP reporters each addressed the audience, explaining the situations under which their employment there ended. Melissa Evans, who had formerly covered the religion beat for the paper, spoke nervously at first. “I never thought I’d be sitting in a church, talking about a professional dispute:. I’m still not used to public speaking,” she said. “I’m sure we’d rather be sitting at our desks doing interviews.” Evans admitted that lawyers representing she and her colleagues asked them to show restraint in describing their former employer, but Evans did critique NP management for what she saw as ethical breaches, noting that the appointment of opinion editor Travis Armstrong to oversee daily operations constituted the biggest breach of the division between news and opinion she had ever seen in her 12 years as a reporter.

Former senior sportswriter John Zant – whose 38-year tenure at the NP ended when he joined the February 2 employee protest in which they displayed a sign over the 101 rush hour commute encouraging people to cancel their subscriptions to the paper – said he was warmed by the sight of his reserved parking spot when he arrived at the church. “Maybe they can get me a reservation upstairs,” he joked. Zant explained that the union between church activity and a newspaper’s sports department was not entirely unheard of, as a large volume of phone calls to sports writers are people inquiring the date of the Super Bowl so they can refrain from scheduling church-related activities on that day. Zant said despite that his duties at the NP made for a “pretty cool job to have for 38 years,” he said he did not regret joining in the 101 protest and he felt he had to support his colleagues.

Unlike Evans and Zant, Dawn Hobbs spoke while standing. “It’s hard to be excited when I’m sitting down,” she explained. Hobbs’s words were easily the most forceful spoken at the assembly. Few listening could have mistaken her for anything other that determined to fight for what she felt was right. “We can either let McCaw run roughshod, turning the News-Press into her official mouthpiece or we can reinstall the wall,” Hobbs proclaimed. “I intend to do the latter.” She also railed against Armstrong and current de facto NP executive editor Scott Steepleton, noting that National Labor Relations Board Judge William Schmidt doubted the truthfulness of their testimonies at the recent NLRB trial. Hobbs called her former place of employment “a national disgrace” in its current state, explaining that she intended to provide her town the news service she once had at the NP through, a new online service that is scheduled to debut April 2. Once up and running, the Teamsters Union-sponsored site will allow the eight fired NP reporters to post news stories. Hobbs said the project will also feature televised news broadcasted on Channel 17. “It will be quite an experience putting print reporters in front of a camera,” Hobbs said.

The meeting concluded with questions submitted by attendees. The first of these – “Would Jesus boycott the News-Press?” – elicited a both a laugh and an emphatic “yes” from Grant. She went on to explain that her Universalist Unitarian religious view advocates justice, equality and freedom of consciousness – three qualities she felt the News-Press management prohibited.

Other questions ranged from factual – regarding the financial stability of the paper – to personal – about how being fired has affected the various reports’ lives. Evans explained that she believed that the NP’s circulation had decreased from 41,000 a year ago to 35,000 this past September and that an official audit later this month would disclose exactly how much the paper’s well-publicized troubles had impacted readership. In response to the question of why the fired reporters simply do not start up their own paper, Evans answered that it came to a matter of financial feasibility. “I don’t think people realize how expensive it would be,” Evans said. “I don’t think the Teamsters would go for that.” To that, Dawn added that the fired reporters don’t necessarily want new jobs – they want their old jobs back.

Zant responded to the question “Has Wendy McCaw ever sat down with you?” in the negative, noting that he felt a face-to-face discussion about news policy could have “nipped this problem in the bud.”

One submitted comment noted that given the dire conditions of the newsroom upon their departure, it seems strange that the fired reporters would want to go back. Evans explained that though the last few months of her employment at the NP were indeed rough, she still though of her old position as a “dream job.”

P1080315.jpg”We would tolerate it,” she said. Hobbs, so often steely in her resolve during public appearances since her firing, said workplace drama had taken a dramatic toll on her. “I literally drove to work in tears,” she said of her last few weeks. “My stomach was in knots not knowing what was going to happen on a given day.”

Hobbs, a single mother, further demonstrated the personal ramifications of the “situation” in response to a question about how being fired has affected the former staffers economically. “I have a very sick kitty and now an $1,800 vet bill that I have no clue how I’ll pay,” said Hobbs, who also noted that another fired reporter had to move out of her home in order to rent it to generate income. Zant too noted his hardships, praising his wife as “a wonderful breadwinner.”

In conclusion, Rabbi Gross-Schaefer wished Evans, Zant and Hobbs luck in their future efforts – both in fighting to regain their jobs and in their interim project, He noted that though those planning this new news service may think the debut date was picked arbitrarily, April 2 is the night before Passover, when Jews observe their ancestors’ escape from enslavement in Egypt. In that sense, Gross-Schaefer likened all clerics to the labor activists in the since that Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy men and women are each the inheritors of Moses, the leader of the first labor movement.

P1080325.jpgIn the same vein of not addressing public concerns or answering questions from other reporters, the following list of questions was sent last week to attorney Barry Cappello while the article “Midweek News-Press Follies” was being researched and written. Cappello refrained from answering them because they were more journalistic rather than legal in scope.

However, a couple hours later, the NP’ occasional spokesperson Agnes Huff kindly contacted Indy editor Matt Kettmann, reminding him that she was still the point person for questions directed to NP management. The questions, which are both specific about the paper’s coverage and critique of the stabbing and general with regards to comparable local daily newspapers, were then forwarded to her in their entirety, and she said she would seek a comment from the newspaper.

Less than 90 minutes later, Huff responded with an email that explained, “I just heard back regarding your request and was advised that there will not be a statement available.” It was not a surprise, but it still remains unclear when, if ever, the newspaper’s management will discuss the matter, their coverage, and the newspaper’s future with the outside press. Numerous media watchers have commented that it’s a hypocritical stance for a newspaper to not provide public comments, and, at the very least, a sign that whomever is making the decisions at the News-Press are not remotely interested in the practice of open journalism, public debate, and accountability.

Here are the questions that Kettmann asked of the newspaper:

Hi Barry,

I am working on a short entry right now about how many in the community are being critical of Travis Armstrong’s columns related to the alleged misquoting of councilman Grant House by Scott Steepleton. It’s the secondary topic of today’s protest at the News-Press.

For some reason, I doubt that you’d want to comment on critiques of News-Press editorials, since it seems more of a journalistic thing rather than legal, but if you do, I’d be happy to report anything you wanted to say.

The questions would be:

Did Steepleton realize that he took House’s comments out of context? (For example, the line “I feel pretty good” as the first quote in an article is clearly going to be villified, and reporters are generally trained not to put their sources in such a light unless such a light is deserved. I highly doubt House meant that he “felt good” about the whole thing, which is what the quote comes of as meaning.) So was it intentional?

Does Armstrong believe that he should have discussed the matter with House before slaying the councilman in an editorial? I understand that contacting a subject of an editorial is standard practice for most editorial pages.

Does Armstrong feel that scathing attacks on public officials are the proper use of his editorial pages at this troubled time in the city? Or, better put, does Armstrong feel that finger-pointing is an effective way to remedy this problem? What would he consider a positive response to his attacks on the mayor and other councilmembers?

When Armstrong questions whether a Latino on the council would have responded faster, is he trying to critique City Hall – which is obviously not in the business of getting Latinos to run for office – or does he realize that such is a critique of the city’s voters and candidates at large? Does he find such a comment responsible? What would be a positive response to that critique?

Does Armstrong or anyone have a response to House’s response from earlier this week or to Barnwell’s comments at City Hall last night?

I think that’s it.

I plan to post by 11:30 since I got other work to attend to.

And I gotta say, just as an objective, comparative study, I was up in San Luis Obispo last weekend, and the Tribune up there simply rocks as a smalltown newspaper: jam-packed with local news (like 20+ items from all over their county); smart, factually based, and tempered editorials; a letters section that welcomes divergent and opposed views; and a presence in town that’s generally calming rather than inflammatory. I honestly had forgotten what a local daily newspaper could be.

Does the News-Press have a response to that analysis, which I offer as a critical reader of newspapers all over the world?

And as another general question that could be answered at any time: What is Travis Armstrong’s response to the advertisements that have been running in the Daily Sound and in The Independent that report what he has written earlier in his life about casinos? If you haven’t seen them, his comments while at the Mercury News are about as anti-casino as any comments I’ve ever seen, which is a stark contrast to his pro-casino editorials today. Are they taken out of context? Did he change his mind? If so, why?




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