Last One Standing: Melinda Burns or Wendy McCaw?

Real News Still Practiced Here

Let’s start with the number 12. As in 12 months in a year, 12 hours to a clock rotation, 12 inches per foot, 12 knights at the Round Table, 12 Apostles following Jesus, and 12 bars to a blues song, so long as it’s not played by John Lee Hooker. And now the 12 Thai kids ​— ​plus their soccer coach ​— ​just rescued from what certainly would have been their watery grave.

Then it’s been 12 years ​— ​almost to the day ​— ​that Rob Lowe, actor and well-known Montecito resident, triggered the meltdown that left southern Santa Barbara County gratuitously and stupidly bereft of its only daily newspaper, the News-Press. However aggrieved Lowe may have felt in the moment, he could have no idea what miserable chain of events his chagrin over a news article published on June 22, 2006, would unleash. No one could.

I bring this up because on June 22 this year, news broke that Rob Lowe and his wife, Sheryl Lowe, have put their Picacho Lane dream home on the market for $47 million. Maybe Montecito’s recent disasters spurred the decision to sell. Or maybe ​— ​as has been reported elsewhere ​— ​the Lowes’ two kids have flown the coop, making their stately six-bedroom, 9.5-bath manse ​— ​with a wine cellar built for 1,800 bottles  ​— ​ cavernous and lonely.

There will always be a dark spot in the annals of Santa Barbara folklore about Lowe’s dream home. Its design and construction were bitterly opposed by Lowe’s Picacho Lane neighbor, Fred Gluck, who claimed Lowe’s plans would block his ocean views. Gluck ​— ​on the board of nearly every Fortune 500 company ​— ​fought Lowe’s plans when they went before the Montecito Planning Commission in June 2006. Lowe showed up in the flesh to testify on his family’s behalf. He prevailed by a 3-2 vote. When (former) News-Press reporter Camilla Cohee wrote the news article ​— ​Rob Lowe versus Fred Gluck may not have been Godzilla versus Mothra, but by local standards it qualified as Big News ​— ​she noted the address of the property in question. That’s standard practice. Lowe reportedly was furious, feeling his privacy had been invaded. He complained to News-Press owner Wendy McCaw, who took disciplinary measures against a handful of writers and editors for violating a policy ​— ​thou shall not report on the addresses of local celebrities ​— ​that did not then exist. At least one editor got fired. At that point, all hell broke loose, and McCaw quickly found herself transformed ​— ​in the eyes of the community ​— ​into Dr. Frankenstein, with the News-Press building in De la Guerra Plaza her much-besieged castle.

The siege got radioactive in a big, fat hurry; it remains so today. Without belaboring the gory details, the News-Press has shrunk to an anorexic shadow of its former self. Daily papers function very much like the rug that ties a room together, to steal a line from another Hollywood actor who made Santa Barbara his home, Jeff Bridges. Despite valiant efforts by the Indy and Noozhawk (notwithstanding the latter’s insistence on relentless self-congratulation), Santa Barbara could really use a rug.

Let me suggest a case in point. On a wintery Friday afternoon ​— ​four days before the 1/9 Debris Flow struck ​— ​the movers and shakers making up Santa Barbara’s Emergency Response mafia held a press conference to warn everyone The Big One was coming. We covered the event and posted it online. So did Noozhawk. But had former News-Press reporter Melinda Burns not been the first of many fired in McCaw’s subsequent purges ​— ​and still on the job ​— ​I can state as a matter of absolute fact, she would have written four exhaustive front-page stories detailing every prior debris flow to ever steamroll Santa Barbara. There would have been massive color photos showing in pornographic detail what paths these monsters like to take and what damage they inflict along the way. Burns could not have done otherwise; it’s how her DNA rolls. Even so, some people would have stayed put. But a lot more would have gotten out of harm’s way.

I mention Burns in particular because since the News-Press implosion, she’s made an absolute pest of herself, forever conjuring new ways to fill Santa Barbara’s gaping media void. Invariably her plans involve some element of cooperation or collaboration among news organizations, which, for competitive rivals, is not genetically possible. Most of Burns’s schemes never got off the ground. One, however, did ​— ​a short-lived, misbegotten online news venture dubbed Mission & State. Burns bears zero responsibility for that spectacular failure, as it had been snatched away from her control while still in its infancy.

Burns figured out cooperation among competitors was never going to happen. Instead, she made us an offer we couldn’t afford to refuse. Burns created her own one-woman news bureau and has specialized in stories crying out to be covered ​— ​the drought, Montecito’s emergence from mud and ash, the geology of debris flows. All reporting is labor-intensive, some exceptionally so. These are the ones Burns does. It isn’t glamorous or fun. It’s just necessary. Somehow, Burns offers her work ​— ​bone-crunchingly thorough ​— ​free of charge. Her only caveat is everyone gets access to it at the same time. As a business model, this defies both logic and gravity. Yet there Burns is ​— ​somehow miraculously ​— ​still aloft 35 years after she first started as a reporter and 12 years after getting fired by the News-Press.

I always figured the battle of the News-Press ​ would boil down to a showdown between Wendy McCaw and Melinda Burns. Twelve years later, McCaw still owns the News-Press. But Burns is still writing, still reporting, still giving lie to the “fake news” canard increasingly popular among the totalitarian chic. Twelve years. I hope the Lowes find a nice new place.  ​


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