More News-Press Drama

Jerry Roberts v. Wendy McCaw: Why?

GREASING THE SKIDS: Months before Santa Barbara News-Press editor Jerry Roberts resigned in July 2006, owner Wendy McCaw was trying to replace him-so why did she sue him for $25 million after he quit? She was rid of him, wasn’t she? After all, McCaw’s fiance and publisher-to-be Arthur von Wiesenberger had called Los Angeles magazine editor Kit Rachlis that spring and asked if he was interested in the Santa Barbara job, Rachlis told me Monday. Kit said he wasn’t interested.

On the Beat

If he’d taken the News-Press editorship, Rachlis would have brought an impressive resume to the paper, not the least of which is the fact that he was an editor of the Santa Barbara News & Review, a predecessor to The Santa Barbara Independent, almost three decades ago. He was born in Paris, raised in New York City, and earned a B.A. in American studies from Yale in 1975. He was music editor and arts editor of the Boston Phoenix (1977-1984), executive editor of New York’s Village Voice (1984-1988), editor-in-chief of the L.A. Weekly (1988-1993), and senior editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and the paper’s senior projects editor (1994-2000). In 2000, he became editor-in-chief of Los Angeles magazine.

The current Los Angeles magazine features a long piece laying out in vivid detail what it terms the News-Press mess. It calls the controversy “a soap opera about the Boss from Hell,” and quotes one unidentified longtime S.B. resident as saying of McCaw, “She represents the carpetbagger with cash.” While the paper now resembles “a vanity publication with mass distribution” and is fast losing circulation, it is in no danger of going under financially, according to the article by R.J. Smith.

McCaw was rid of Roberts, but surely was surprised by the mass resignations that followed during the newsroom meltdown that still continues. And she became the target of a harsh barrage of personal criticism, knocks that would make even the toughest of skin flinch. So was the $25 million arbitration action against her former editor (originally $500,000 but she upped the ante after he countered with a $10 million suit) an act of revenge for his criticism after he quit? Or did she feel that his public statements seriously damaged the paper?

Details of the closed-door arbitration that has gone on at the DoubleTree for the past several weeks are confidential, and those who know aren’t talking. The best that anyone I’ve talked to (Roberts has kept mum) can speculate is that McCaw is apparently accusing her former editor of breaching his contract by public remarks he made after quitting, especially at a town forum at Victoria Hall one night. Roberts apparently responded to the allegations by claiming that everything he said was already in the public domain and had been said elsewhere, earlier. So he was just repeating it, not breaking a confidentiality clause.

Roberts’s counter-claim is also shrouded in secrecy, but the gist seems to be that he contends he was constructively forced to quit because of McCaw’s own actions, which included handing his editor job over to opinion-page editor Travis Armstrong.

For one reason or another, the News-Press has not been able to hire an executive editor since Roberts quit. (And at some point, former Santa Barbara Magazine editor Holly Palance was reportedly offered the editor job, but declined. Palance, daughter of actor Jack Palance, lives in Santa Barbara and has many contacts useful to a newspaper, but had no newspaper experience.) The paper has not been the same, shedding talent, vital staff experience, quality, and subscribers and firing off volleys of lawsuits and fighting the union.

KIRK’S WISDOM: Quote from part-time Santa Barbaran Kirk Douglas in the current Esquire: “I tell my sons they didn’t have my advantages growing up. I came from abject poverty. There was nowhere to go but up.”

JULIA’S FLAVOR: Esquire quote from the late Julia Child in a June 2000 interview: “Fat gives things flavor. There is nothing worse than grilled vegetables. Celebrity has its uses. I can always get a seat in any restaurant. I’m awfully sorry for people who are taken in by all of today’s dietary mumbo jumbo. If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?”

GRAFTON WRITES ON: Rioh Favis observes that whodunit author Sue Grafton (who just published T is for Trespass) now has to work on the rest of the alphabet. Her motto, Favis suggested, might be: “I have miles to go before I zleep!”

SUGAR PLUMS: I’ve never eaten one, but cheered the dancing ones at the State Street Ballet’s performance of The NutCracker during an outstanding evening last weekend that brought new life to the ballet, which we’ve seen so many times. This one, at the Lobero, was set in the 1930s.


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