Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006 | Shortly after leaving the Army in 1960, I decided to become a newspaperman. The idea came to me one morning lying in bed, and since the bed happened to be in Santa Barbara, I decided to start my career at the local newspaper, the News-Press. I wandered into their offices on Anacapa Street that afternoon, asked for Mr. Storke, the owner-publisher, and to my great surprise was rejected. Get some experience, they said.
I had revenge of sorts a few years later when I won the Thomas M. Storke award for international journalism. Storke, founder of what became the News-Press in 1901, is one of the legendary names in California publishing, up there with Chandler, Hearst and McClatchy. For most of the past century, Santa Barbara, though a small town by California city standards, has had a good newspaper to serve it.
Today, the News-Press is a catastrophe, victim of the whims of a rich and capricious owner who decided she didn’t like some of its columnists and editors (remind you of any other newspaper?). The owner, Wendy McCaw, an animal rights activist with a $600 million divorce settlement from Nextel founder Craig McCaw, bought the News-Press as a toy, began dating the food critic (now there’s a combo for good restaurant seating) and started arranging the news to favor friends and punish enemies.
When her top editors, reporters and columnists quit, she replaced them with cronies. She has made the historic News-Press into a national laughing stock.
The good newspapers in this country, and there are a few left, understand they are a public trust. They exist not to keep owners in fast cars and mansions in La Jolla and Montecito, but to report the news fairly and keep an eye on government. I’ve worked for newspapers like that. A good newspaper lives on its reputation, and it takes a foolish owner to put reputation at risk.
McCaw bought the News-Press from The New York Times in 2000. There were other bids, including one from Copley Publishing (how, one wonders, would Copley’s blind Republicanism have fit in a liberal city like Santa Barbara?), but only McCaw would pay $100 million for a newspaper with 40,000 circulation. For a while, she stayed out of the way, but this year, now engaged to the food critic, a gent with the exotic name of Arthur (Nipper) von Wiesenberger (graciously elevated by his fiancée to “co-publisher”), she started to censor stories she didn’t like – much like Neil Morgan’s columns were censored and my final column killed by the local owner-publisher.
I recall a conversation one morning with Helen Copley. Copley was a friend of Katherine Graham of the Washington Post Company, and I knew Graham from the days when I was Newsweek Paris bureau chief and had the not unpleasant job of escorting her around Paris when she was visiting, which was often. Helen and I had both read Kay’s biography, and I mentioned Kay’s formula for running a newspaper – “hire good editors and let them do their job.” Helen nodded in approval.
Son David apparently didn’t read the book, and neither did Wendy McCaw. When owners start meddling with the news, the end is not far away.
Nine top editors, reporters and the newspaper’s leading columnist, Barney Brantingham, who knew Santa Barbara better than anyone, walked out over McCaw’s meddling. Mass demonstrations were held on Anacapa Street when the news of the resignations became known – not of course, through the News-Suppress.
“I quit the News-Press last week after more than 46 years,” said Brantingham, “because I couldn’t bear to watch the destruction of a fine newspaper. I could not continue to work for a newspaper that had lost its credibility and its soul.”
It’s sad what’s happening to daily newspapers. The future may be the blogs, and cities that have the talent, courage and money to start on-line newspapers like voiceofsandiego.org are fortunate. But if print newspapers are dying off – and circulations at newspapers like the Union-Tribune are in freefall – why grease the blade of the guillotine? Why do everything to drive readers away? It’s a mystery.
Brantingham quit when a news story about suppression of the biggest story in town – the resignation of the newspaper’s top editors – was itself suppressed. He joined himself to those putting principle ahead of career, something once common in journalism but today as rare as a Bush Administration neo-con. Careerism has always been the enemy of journalistic principle, and nowhere in my long career have I seen it more rampant than in San Diego. Hats off to the Santa Barbara nine.
The drama had bush-league origins. A movie star named Rob Lowe, who lives in Montecito, wanted to add a few thousand more square feet to his mansion, and the zoning dispute ended up on the News-Press front page, as it should have done. McCaw, who lost a zoning decision to the California Coastal Commission on her own 25-acre property four years ago (she wanted to deny public access to the beach front), is Lowe’s friend, and when Lowe complained, Wendy had co-publisher Nipper call from France, where they are vacationing, to chastise the reporter.
Publishers, as Graham knew but McCaw doesn’t, don’t call reporters. Editors do. The reporter and four editors involved in the Lowe story, including executive editor Jerry Roberts (former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle), received letters of reprimand from McCaw and Nipper, still in France. Their sin: reporting the news.
Now it gets darker. The newspaper’s editorial page editor, a man named Travis Armstrong who my Santa Barbara friends say was detested at the newspaper and in the community but was close to McCaw, was arrested for heading the wrong way down a one-way street with three times the legal amount of alcohol in his system. Roberts ran the story, as he was right to do. Armstrong complained to McCaw, who, upset that another pal was getting bad publicity, decided to replace Roberts with Armstrong.
With that, the roof fell in. As Roberts later said, “a series of decisions ran counter to journalism’s code of ethics.” The managing editor, deputy managing editor, business editor, metro editor, sports editor, top investigative reporter and Brantingham all quit, unwilling to work for a McCaw drudge appointed – while still serving as editorial page editor – “acting publisher.” It doesn’t get more unethical than that.
The next day, the news staff poured onto Anacapa Street in protest and is now petitioning to obtain union representation for protections against McCaw, co-publisher Nipper and acting publisher Armstrong. The staff has launched a campaign calling on readers to cancel subscriptions if union recognition is not granted. Editor&Publisher, the bible of the media industry, reports that hundreds of readers have cancelled subscriptions.
When will the owners learn? When they take their customers for fools, the customers will look elsewhere. In that sense, newspapers are like any other business.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.