It’s Been Quite a Year: Anyone who’s been paying attention knows what’s happened at the News-Press since the fateful meltdown day of July 6, 2006. The question is: What now?
How, the town keeps asking, will it all end? Will the fired reporters get their jobs back, will editors and others who quit return, and by magic we’ll wake up some morning to the good old News-Press of pre-July 6? Or will Wendy McCaw just run the News-Press into the ground, and will T.M. Storke’s Pulitzer paper die with a whimper as the presses groan to a halt some night?
I don’t look to either scenario. To really predict the future you’d have to peer into Wendy McCaw’s mind and since she’s not talking, that’s not easy. But the clues are there, and you don’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes to spot them.
McCaw clearly feels that she’s in a war and, backed by her millions, has no intention of capitulating. Some feel that she actually relishes a battle that other owners would have tried to settle long ago.
The News-Press shows no signs of folding. True, it’s shedding circulation and no doubt has lost some advertisers. But it still comes out every day and some observers feel that it’s actually making money-if you don’t count the staggering legal fees McCaw is racking up.
McCaw has proved that she can put out a daily paper without any reporters, or darn few. Fill it with AP wire copy, oversized photos, frothy features galore, and a bare minimum of local news stories. And never mind covering the two major governmental agencies, the county Board of Supervisors and Santa Barbara City Council. Who cares about being the “newspaper of record”? Who cares if people detest the editorial page? It’s a weapon against her enemies. Who cares if the News-Press isn’t a real newspaper anymore, just a husk of its old self and a vehicle for vengeance?
As for profits? After virtually all the top editors quit, reporters resigned or were fired, and key business officials fled or were banished, thousands of dollars were trimmed off the payroll, making the precious bottom line look so much better.
I talked to one knowledgeable veteran of Santa Barbara’s media scene. He expects the News-Press to eventually stabilize at about 25,000 circulation, down from around 40,000 a year or so ago. After all, readers need their morning fix and advertisers need their ads, and never mind the pain and suffering that’s still going on. That they’re trading on misery and subsidizing personal-possibly even libelous-attacks seems beyond them.
Which brings us to the union battle. Just days after the top editors and I quit on July 6, the staff met to figure out how to respond to a paper whose owner seemed to be out of control and making the newsroom her playground. How to rebuild the sacred wall between the opinion pages and the news? How to protect the news? Soon cards were being passed around to affiliate with the Teamsters.
McCaw fought the union effort tooth and nail, but the newsroom vote last September was 33-6 to unionize. Yet through a combination of McCaw’s legal maneuvers and the National Labor Relations Board’s glacial process, supposedly aimed at protecting workers’ rights to organize, there have been no contract negotiations and no contract. Nine reporters fired months ago are still jobless, and a federal hearing charging the News-Press with unfair labor practices is more than a month away. It could be many months, perhaps years, before the reporters win their jobs back.
Although the National Labor Relations Board has determined that firing them was against the law, it recently refused to ask a judge to order them immediately rehired. And when the News-Press loses the case, it faces no penalty for breaking the law. It just has to give them back pay. And, as McCaw has surely been told by her lawyers, there’s a way to decertify or kick out the Teamsters before a contract is even agreed on, much less signed. As I understand it, this is how it works, oversimplified: After all the tangled legal issues are settled, the feds can certify the Teamsters as newsroom reps. Then contract talks can start. According to one anti-union Web site, “For ‘new’ unions which just became the exclusive bargaining representative and do not yet have a collective bargaining agreement, the general NLRB rule is that the union and employer must bargain in good faith for approximately a year before the NLRB will hold a decertification election.” If so, all McCaw needs to do is drag out talks for 12 months and make sure there aren’t enough pro-union workers left when the decertification election takes place. On the other hand, I’m told that the NLRB’s general counsel has a policy of being especially protective of unions in this first-contract phase.
In any case, the so-called endgame is far down the road.