‘News-Press’ Abandons Santa Barbara for the Good Land
What’s Happening with Our Daily Paper? No One Really Knows
WHEN THE PAST BITES YOUR ASS: The last and only time I set foot in the News-Press offices was shortly before Wendy McCaw bought the paper back in 2000 and subsequently sued me a few years later. It was late at night. I remember being overwhelmed by a shimmering sea of desks in the newsroom, unimaginable given today’s withered economic realities. Each one offered a space where a reporter or a writer or an editor of some sort could roost. It was mind-boggling then; it’s tragic now.
Naturally, one desk was set aside for the City Council beat reporter, another for the reporter covering the county supervisors. But back then, the News-Press also had a reporter who covered nothing but education, another business, and another still, religion. Imagine that. A religion beat reporter. You can’t. It’s not possible.
Of course, there were lots of writers to cover sports, our true religion. And, of course, the courts. With one of the paper’s two court reporters, I would place regular wagers on the verdicts of high-profile trials. The loser would buy the other lunch. We grew fat and queasy on greasy cheeseburgers.
By today’s standards, all this was insanely extravagant. But what’s really insane is that next Monday, the two remaining people who still work at the News-Press’s grand and historic offices in De la Guerra Plaza — built originally in 1922 and then added to significantly in 1951 — will pack up their desks and hightail it to a weed-choked industrial lot in Goleta. There, you can hear cars rush by on the 217. That’s where the News-Press printing press is located. That’s where what used to be Santa Barbara’s daily newspaper of record will soon be.
Normally, I’d say this is akin to the Baltimore Colts slinking out of town in the middle of the night on their way to Indianapolis. But it’s hard to get too misty-eyed about pulling the plug on something that’s been on life support for 17 years.
When McCaw took over, she proceeded to run the paper as if Santa Barbara were her own personal hermit kingdom. From the start, her interaction with the community has been “Talk to the hand.”
When Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse gets a phone call from a News-Press reporter, as he frequently does, it’s from someone he’s never actually met and probably never will. That reporter lives and works in Ventura.
Back in 1962, News-Press owner and publisher Thomas Storke — dubbed Santa
Barbara’s benign dictator by Time magazine — won a Pulitzer Prize for running the paranoid conspiracy nuts who populated our local branch of the John Birch Society out of town. Society founder Robert Welch charged that President Dwight Eisenhower was — among other things — “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Not quite QAnon and kiddie porn, but close enough.
By contrast, under McCaw, the News-Press would, in fact, publish a Sunday-morning front-page article — above the fold — suggesting that the work computer used by Jerry Roberts — who had just quit as editor in disgust over McCaw’s newsroom interference — was laden with porn. At that time, city police had already investigated the computer and concluded there was no basis to the charge. I don’t know if that technically counts as legal malice — the issue giving rise to Fox News’ $787 million settlement with Dominion voting machines — but McCaw would eventually have to settle with Roberts for $900,000.
Under McCaw’s regime, the News-Press didn’t chase our modern-day John Birchers out of town; she joined their parade. The News-Press would be the only newspaper in all of California to endorse Donald Trump, standard-bearer for our generation’s version of the John Birch Society. In fact, she did so twice. And in the asterisks of history, McCaw enjoys the distinction of being the first newspaper owner to endorse Trump in the entire nation.
The historic trajectory from Thomas M. Storke to Wendy P. McCaw is a long walk off a very short pier. With the Pulitzer Prize under Storke’s belt in 1962, the value of the News-Press doubled in less than a year. Storke — then in his late eighties and bitterly estranged from the son who was poised to become his successor — sold out in 1964 to the owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who later sold to the New York Times, who in turn sold to McCaw — then known as an intensely media-phobic billionaire, libertarian, vegetarian, and preservationist who had helped free Willy the Whale. From the beginning, relations between McCaw and the community were a size-12 foot in a size-six shoe. With her employees, it was worse.
Storke, it turns out, never wrote the editorials for which he won his award. That distinction goes to editor Paul Veblen, his write-hand man. Storke did, however, write a biographical intro describing himself as having been born “When west was west and men were men.” By that, he suggested, the best way to respond to the Birchers of Santa Barbara was with “a barrel of tar and a few feathers.”
That kind of feisty old-man vigilante lingo played a lot better then.
Naturally, nobody has a clue what will happen now to the News-Press building — a historic landmark — and its even bigger parking lot. The smart money is convinced McCaw would rather deed the property to her beloved pet donkeys before she’d ever sell. We’d be better off if she did.
In Santa Barbara, everything always boils down to real estate.
And no, I’m not feeling fair or balanced. She sued me — on my birthday — remember?