The NLRB’s trial attorney accused the ‘News-Press’ — owned by Wendy P. McCaw (pictured) — of “engaging in dilatory tactics that frustrate and delay the bargaining process” from 2017 to 2020. | Credit: Paul Wellman

The National Labor Relations Board observed the 15th anniversary of the newsroom meltdown that shook the Santa Barbara News-Press to its foundation by charging its parent company — Ampersand Publishing Inc. — with contempt for failing to bargain in good faith with the union representing its editorial employees. More specifically, Nicole Lancia, the trial attorney representing the NLRB, accused the News-Press — owned by Wendy P. McCaw — of “engaging in dilatory tactics that frustrate and delay the bargaining process” from 2017 to 2020. 

Based on the timeline provided in the contempt action, the News-Press began waging a campaign of delay and frustration in 2007, shortly after newsroom workers voted to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, but it would not be until 2017 when a federal court of appeals would officially order McCaw, Ampersand, and the News-Press to knock it off.

For the union and many of the former writers, editors, photographers, and other newsroom workers, the NLRB action marks yet another “win” in a long chain of procedural victories that McCaw has repeatedly ignored or appealed. All but one of the workers who joined the union in August 2006 have long since quit, resigned, died, been fired, or retired.

The News-Press, in that time, has emerged as a withered and disgraced facsimile of what it once was: a daily newspaper with actual relevance to the community it purported to serve.

The meltdown was triggered when McCaw disciplined Camilla Cohee Barnwell — then a reporter and now public information officer for the Santa Barbara Unified School District — for violating rules that did not then exist. Barnwell was reporting on a land-use dispute involving actor Rob Lowe, then a Montecito resident and social friend of McCaw. In her coverage, Barnwell published the address of the property in question and identified Lowe — who spoke publicly on the matter.

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For McCaw, this crossed a line, and Barnwell was given a disciplinary letter in her file, as were two editors involved in the story. From there, the dispute escalated into a full-fledged battle about journalistic ethics that then escalated further into a showdown for the hearts and minds of Santa Barbara. McCaw, ever stubborn and tenacious, found herself not just alienated from “mainstream Santa Barbara” but at war with it.

In response to this turmoil, then-editor Jerry Roberts turned in his resignation on July 6 and was then walked out of the News-Press building. Many protests, court battles, and at least one documentary film ensued.

Under McCaw’s ownership, the News-Press endorsed Donald Trump two times, one of the few papers in the nation to do so. More recently, she penned an editorial likening the long lines in front of supermarkets to the totalitarian regimes of Russia and Nazi Germany. When her editor at the time, Nick Masuda, noted that her editorial did not reflect the views of the entire paper, he soon found himself looking for a new job.

Ira Gottlieb, the attorney representing the Teamsters union throughout much of this strife, speculated it was highly unlikely that McCaw would now attempt to comply with the 2017 appeals court order but would file legal papers fighting the NLTB’s contempt action.

As for the NLRB filing its action on the 15th anniversary of the so-called meltdown, Gottlieb only shrugged. “It’s like a stopped clock. If you live long enough, something will happen on the anniversary of it stopping,” he said. “If you have enough anniversaries.”

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