A Double Loss to the News-Press Copy Desk

Race and Reporting: I can count on the fingers of one hand how many African-American journalists I worked with during my 46-plus years at the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Not that the News-Press to my knowledge ever refused to hire a minority who should have been hired. The African-American editors and reporters I knew moved on to bigger papers, higher salaries, and places where they could afford to own a home, just as many young white newsroom employees did over the years.

On the Beat

Others of us ignored opportunity elsewhere, stayed on, and made Santa Barbara our home. Last year, the turmoil-roiled News-Press hired a black editor, Cliff Redding, to work on the copy desk. Cliff, I find, had worked at dailies in Norfolk and Baltimore, at the New York Daily News and Newsday, and came with a good resume.

When the copy desk chief quit, Cliff was promoted on an interim basis. There he struggled to hold the listing ship together, working incredibly long hours, according to my sources. But dedication and devotion counted for little.

A week ago he was fired, scapegoat for a gag that was embarrassing to the paper. Copy editor Lara Milton was leaving to take a job in Bend, Oregon. According to tradition, her desk mates created a gag front page, with jokes and a parody of Laura Schlessinger’s column.

But apparently no one told the computer.

As I understand it, it assumed that the gag page was the real Schlessinger column and posted it on the online version of the paper. Redding, as boss, got blamed and got the sack. The newsroom’s only African-American was gone. Management might have given him a reprimand, but the way things are at paper these days, his head had to roll.

So, in one stroke, the desk lost two key editors responsible for laying out Page One.

“Mine was a raw deal,” he told Richard Prince’s Journal-Isms blog.” But as my mother says, ‘If it doesn’t kill you it’ll make you stronger.’ “

His former co-workers, including those who’ve left the paper, were appalled. “My firing from the Santa Barbara News-Press was an unfortunate situation, but I am looking forward,” he told Prince. “Though I like the West Coast, I would entertain the possibility of moving. I appreciate the support I have received after I was shown the door.”

He caught on part-time at the local news website, Noozhawk, whose founder, publisher and CEO Bill Macfadyen is an ex-News-Presser.

Jerry Roberts Case: After months in the works, News-Press owner Wendy McCaw’s $25 million arbitration action against former editor Jerry Roberts is moving surprisingly fast in hearings at the DoubleTree.

The deliberations are confidential, but McCaw is reportedly accusing him of breach of contract. Roberts, in turn, is counter-claiming for $10 million, apparently claiming that he was, in effect, forced to quit after his job supervising the newsroom was turned over to editorial page editor Travis Armstrong.

As Roberts said in a speech after he left on July 6, 2006: “When I returned to Santa Barbara from vacation a few weeks ago, I learned, as has been widely reported, that in my absence, the editorial page editor was given authority over the news-gathering operation, with control over the selection, placement, content and editing of news stories.”

So, in addition to bastardizing the news operation, it meant that Roberts’ job was eliminated, or reduced to the level of Armstrong’s errand boy. McCaw is putting on her case this week and it’s Roberts’ turn next week. It’s being heard by L.A.-based arbitrator Deborah Rothman, Yale-educated and with a resume as long as Stearns Wharf. She has a masters in public affairs from Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton, and was a litigation attorney at Manatt Phelps Rothenberg & Tunney. She sounds plenty savvy.

If McCaw loses in this blame phase and then for major damages, count on (surprise!) an appeal. If you’re wondering why the News-Press hasn’t been able to hire a new executive editor since Roberts quit 17 months ago, maybe it’s because no one wants to risk getting sued for $25 million – or any amount.


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