It was a little more than a year ago that the dominos began tumbling at the Santa Barbara News-Press, an institution that’s existed in a state of perpetual free-fall ever since. That’s when Joe Cole – NP owner Wendy P. McCaw’s right-hand man, consigliere, lawyer, and occasional publisher – either quit or was fired.
According to most sources, Cole was one of the few individuals capable of penetrating the tightly insulated bubble in which McCaw – the one-time billionaire – dwelled and continues to reside. Prior to his adventure with McCaw, Cole was famous for advising individuals who were as imperious as they were wealthy. In her, he met not just his match but his Waterloo as well. While Cole was hardly beloved in the News-Press newsroom, he was seen as a voice of sanity. When Cole exited stage right – his skids of his departure having been greased by McCaw’s fiance and paramour Arthur Von Wiesenberger – it was just a matter of time before the wheels flew off Wendy’s car. But no one expected them to fly off quite so quickly. Within two months, editor Jerry Roberts and a team of five other high-ranking editors walked off the job, expressing disgust over ethical lapses and intrusions into the newsroom by Wendy P. and her high-flying bottled water expert Von Wiesenberger.
All that’s ancient history now. But in taking stock of the situation, it’s worth noting that the News-Press – once an exceptionally thriving mid-market metropolitan daily – has been reduced to just one bona fide reporter. Just one! The real number is actually closer to three because business writer Maria Zate and North County reporter Nora Wallace are definitely with the chops to cop the title. But their beats are so specialized that Hannah Guzik is required to cover everything else. That’s a lot of turf for one soul to cover, and thus far there’s little evidence that Ms. Guzik is capable of cloning herself enough times to get the job done. Oozing through the cracks is Scott Steepleton, the associate editor who never answers phone calls or e-mails from this paper.
Under the old regime, Steepleton – who as a columnist carefully cultivated a Joe Meathead everyman persona that just didn’t fly – was persona non grata with many in the newsroom, tolerated barely but not embraced and never encouraged. Under the new regime, Scott has become capo di tutti capi di tutti. But at the News-Press these days, that’s a little like being captain of a sinking dinghy. Those looking for wagers on which to place their money are wondering how long Scott can hold up under the strain of putting out a daily paper. As genuinely pathetic as the News-Press‘s content has since become, one has to acknowledge the sheer physical exertion required for so few people to put out a daily paper. It’s like asking a few fingers to do the job of two full hands.
Part of Scott’s travails, however, we can only blame on his own sensitive management style. Former reporter Leana Orsua quit two weeks ago after Scott issued a gratuitously humiliating front page correction for a hefty exaggeration that appeared in an article she wrote describing this year’s immigration rights rally in contrast to last year’s. In it, Orsua said that hundreds of thousands marched in last year’s rally when in fact the number was closer to 15,000. Normally such errors would be handled with a correction, but Scott and Wendy saw fit to go overboard in their lamentations of apology. Such distortions, they noted, could be exploited by certain unnamed political parties for their own nefarious political agendas, and that the News-Press – with its new branding commitment to “fair, balanced, and factual” news could never be party to something like that. That proved to the last straw for the already broken-backed Orsua, who was by then on her way out the door. Given Steepleton’s unequivocal hostility to the immigrant rights marchers, it’s tempting to think that the correction rather than the mistake betrayed a clear editorial bias. But given the depths to which the News-Press has sunk, these are but minor quibbles.
In the meantime, Mayor Marty Blum – spelled “Bloom” in some errant weekly publications – has announced that she’ll be taking to the airwaves to dispense the news of City Hall to those ill-served or not served at all by what passes at local news on the News-Press. Blum will be taking her road show to KTMS radio – whose call letters, ironically, refer to Thomas More Storke, founder, editor and publisher of the News-Press for many eons. KTMS no longer has any ties to the News-Press, having been cut loose a few years ago, but the News-Press does run a radio station owned in name only by a friend of Wendy’s former husband, Nextel titan Craig McCaw.
That station – 1290 on your AM dial – got in trouble when Marty was not allowed to appear as a guest on a show run by a local non-profit group. Marty got in hot water, it seems because she did not appear on another show on the same station hosted by News-Press editorial page editor Travis Armstrong, who imposed an edict that anyone who would not appear on his show could not be allowed on anyone else’s. By that time, I believe, Cole had left the building, and the wheels were in the process of spinning off the car.
Somehow, I doubt Marty will emerge as the second coming of former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who used to read the comic strips out loud in regular radio broadcasts, but then who could?