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Staff, New Owner Clash at Santa Barbara Paper

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Staff, New Owner Clash at Santa Barbara Paper

Staff, New Owner Clash at Santa Barbara Paper

Staff, New Owner Clash at Santa Barbara Paper

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A new owner's editorial involvement has led to mass resignations at the Santa Barbara News-Press.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Money, media and a big mess in Santa Barbara California. Six editors at the local daily paper, and the town's favorite columnist abruptly quit their jobs last week.

BRAND: This followed months of tension in the newsroom. But it's certainly hasn't quieted all the talk in town. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Downtown Santa Barbara is picture postcard gorgeous. Tourist have drinks at several sidewalk cafes watching blonde girls with long legs and short-shorts stroll by. Most of the year Santa Barbara looks like paradise.

Mr. ROLLO NOVARRO(ph) (Santa Barbara Resident): Santa Barbara's a very, very beautiful community. And many of us call it paradise on earth. Well, with what's happening at the Santa Barbara News-Press, there's disruption in paradise.

BATES: Or maybe eruption in paradise. Rollo Navarro is a Santa Barbara native. He grew up delivering the News-Press as a small boy, and he still reads it. But he's part of the lava flow of public outrage that's steaming over the departure of seven of the News-Press's top employees.

They left last week because they could no longer work for their publisher, Wendy MaCaw. McCaw, the ex-wife of cell phone magnate Craig McCaw, bought the paper from the New York Times in 2000. She lives in the celebrity rich area, where residents include Oprah Winfrey and Michael Douglas.

At first, everyone was pleased that a local would control the paper, but eventually they discovered that there was some news Mrs. McCaw apparently didn't see fit to print.

Margie Bash(ph) gave one example at Joe's, a long time gathering spot for Santa Barbara residents.

Ms. MARGIE BASH (Santa Barbara Resident): I mean crime is committed in this town and it's never reported. It never hits the paper, because this is Santa Barbara, and we don't have crime. It's la-la-la, life is good, you know, it's beautiful and lovely.

BATES: Nor evidently do you have many letters to the editor that criticize the paper's coverage. Nick Welsh edits the Independent, a Santa Barbara weekly that has been relentlessly reporting on the chaos at the News-Press. Welsh says the News-Press simply ignores letters it dislikes, which means the public dialogue that occurs in most papers doesn't here.

Mr. NICK WELSH (Editor, Independent Weekly): People can't talk back to their newspaper, and that's the essence of why this community is in such an uproar about the News-Press.

BATES: Then there is business of which story the paper publishes, and which ones it sits on. Like the one concerning an outgoing councilwoman in nearby Carpinteria.

Mr. WELSH: There's a story right now, where you change this story or it's not going to see the light of day, and it's being held, because, because that reporter hasn't made the changes yet.

BATES: Requests to speak with Mrs. McCaw about these criticisms were refereed to the papers acting publisher, Travis Armstrong. Armstrong is an experienced journalist who also has a law degree. He edited the News-Press's editorial pages for more than four years, until his recent appointed to acting publisher.

Armstrong readily confirmed when I asked that the story about the Carpinteria councilwoman was being held. But, he says, there's no mystery as to why.

Mr. TRAVIS ARMSTRONG (Acting publisher, News-Press): Frankly, there were concerns about whether it was up to our standards, particularly because this story is set to be on Page A-1. So that's a pretty big deal to us. And some of the questions I've asked about this story are basic.

BATES: Armstrong says specifics he asked for about the atmosphere of council meetings, budget details, and a comparison of the councilwoman's campaign promises with what she's accomplished have yet to reach him.

But a source inside the paper who is intimately familiar with this story, and who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, says the changes were demanded because Armstrong deemed the piece insufficiently flattering to the politician in question.

A bigger deal is a story that has run. It concerns a home that former West Wing star Rob Lowe intended to build in Montecito. Plans for the oversized house upset some neighbors in this enclave of understated wealth, and a contentious hearing was held to debate Lowe's building permit.

The actor's address for the still unbuilt home is part of the public record because of the hearing. But when the paper published it, Lowe protested. And the reporters and editors who worked on the story received scathing letters from Wendy McCaw.

On the deck of his home high in the Santa Barbara hills, columnist Barney Brantingham explained why McCaw's letters were the catalyst for his and other staff members' resignations.

Mr. BARNEY BRANTINGHAM (Columnist): She wrote those letters criticizing these editors in no uncertain terms. And the way she wrote them, it left no doubt that she was interfering with the news and taking shots at the reporters and was hostile to them. And the tone of the letters was such that how could you stay in the paper with that kind of an owner?

BATES: Travis Armstrong has a different view.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I have a sense that many people, that there's just disappointment in their former colleagues, what they've done to them personally and what they seem to be trying to do the News-Press.

Mr. ROY CLARK (The Poynter Institute): The editors who left were not just saying take this job and shove it, but they were saying this job is so important that it demands a kind of leadership from the top that we no longer have.

BATES: That's Roy Clark. He's a scholar at the Poynter Institute, a professional development school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida. Clark says that people who buy newspapers need to realize that to be publisher and owner of one is not the same as owning other kinds of businesses.

Mr. CLARK: Publishers, even eccentric ones, need to learn the lessons of the bad things that happen when they meddle.

BATES: It's an object lesson more newspapers and their readers will continue to learn as the nature of the business evolves. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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