Saturday, July 08, 2006

Continuing Meltdown

The soap opera at the News-Press is becoming a crisis if this LA Times report is to be believed. Local residents are wondering aloud what will become of the city's only daily:

Mickey Flacks, a 39-year resident and a fixture in activist politics, said the developments would leave the region without a "responsible, independent newspaper." The fallout to the community — and the News-Press — could be serious, Flacks said.

"To not have local news because the staff has disappeared or because the newspaper will simply be Wendy and Travis' rants is a real loss to the community," she said. "I hope that something will arrive to take its place, whether it's a daily newspaper or a website. It's desperately needed."

As for the paper itself, no one is sure exactly what is going on and it appears that your understanding is based simply on who you believe: Sam Singer, spokesman for the 42,145-circulation paper, said that about 75 readers had canceled their subscriptions as of 3:30 p.m. Friday. Two reporters said they had been told by workers in the circulation department that the total was more than 90 before lunchtime.

Singer, who is based in San Francisco, said he was told that the newsroom on Friday was "quite professional" and that "things are moving forward nicely." He said Armstrong would no longer be writing editorials now that he was the publisher.

A day earlier, employees had shouted obscenities at Armstrong as he escorted the newspaper's editor, Jerry Roberts, out of the News-Press offices. The other journalists left soon after Roberts did.

The departing editors said McCaw was inserting herself into editorial decisions, violating standard journalistic ethics. They said the billionaire newspaper owner killed a story about Armstrong's recent sentencing for drunk driving. They also protested management's punishment of a reporter and several editors for publishing the Montecito address where actor Rob Lowe hopes to build a mansion.Reporters who remained on the job said Friday that Armstrong killed a staff-written story explaining why the five editors and columnist Barney Brantingham had quit the paper.

Instead, the News-Press ran a "note to our readers" at the bottom of the front page. In it, Armstrong said the journalists had left the newspaper because of "differences of opinion as to direction, goals and vision."

He promised that the newspaper would continue "to enhance our news coverage while maintaining both the standards of journalism as well as the standards of this community with respect to personal privacy, fairness and good taste."

Confusion appears to be setting in as readers express uncertainty about how the paper will proceed, even wondering if it will continue. Local influentials also are frustrated at the paper's own handling of the situation as well:

Those who stayed on the job scrambled to put out this weekend's editions Friday, with reporters filling in for the editors who quit. They planned to run more features and, perhaps, use photo essays to fill space that normally might be occupied by news stories.

About 30 of the paper's remaining journalists met late Thursday night at one of their homes to plan what to do next. They hoped to register their dismay with management but hadn't decided how best to do that, according to two who attended the session.

"We are really limping along right now. We are not doing all the reporting and stories we would like to be doing," said one reporter, who asked not to be identified out of fear of being disciplined.

The note didn't sit well with Steve Amerikaner, a prominent Santa Barbara land-use attorney and former city attorney. Santa Barbara is small, but it has a high degree of civic involvement and a sophisticated population that "deserves a first-rate newspaper," he said.

"You wouldn't have known there was something going on at the News-Press by reading the paper today," he said Friday. "You had to look at, oh, I don't know, the L.A. Times."

Amerikaner said the newsroom meltdown was the topic of conversation everywhere he went. At his local Starbucks, "I heard 12 different people talking about what was going on at the News-Press."

Advertisers also wonder, as the week's events have huge ramifications for them: Downtown merchants are concerned about the fallout for business, said Marshall Rose, executive director of the Downtown Organization. "We need a strong daily newspaper," Rose said. "Business relies on the News-Press to provide current events and as a print medium to advertise. To have the classifieds deteriorate in any significant way would be troublesome."

Rose, 62, said he grew up reading, and later advertising in, the News-Press, as did his businessman father. They knew all of the previous owners before McCaw, who arrived six years ago, he said."

There have been changes, but they have been evolutionary, not revolutionary," he said. "This is a pretty dramatic upheaval."

Leaving no segment of the city's population untouched, the city fathers are worried as well: The city's movers and shakers, meanwhile, said they were waiting to see what would happen next. Amerikaner said he has already heard vague talk of other media moving in to fill the void — and that if McCaw intends to respond to reader concerns, she needs to act quickly."

I don't know what it takes to repair it," he said. "But something dramatic needs to happen for the paper to reestablish its position and reputation within the community."

Mark Tapscott made an observation yesterday at Tapscott's Copy Desk that is in many ways obvious, but one that getting caught up in the middle of the going's on escaped me--It's her paper!

Tapscott observes: Can you imagine the gall of the owner to actually think she might have anything to say about the management of her newspaper? What does she think it is, her newspaper or something?

I have no idea whether McCaw's actions are those of a frustrated owner dealing with the passive-resistance-gone-overt of an entrenched newsroom establishment or those of a billionaire philanthropist and environmentalist determined to publish a propaganda sheet.

One thing is certain - Regardless what the newsroom scribes of Santa Barbara think, whether McCaw is a new Al Neuharth or a reincarnation of Horace Greeley, it's HER newspaper.

Meanwhile, the Times was eerily silent about the goings-on in it's own back yard. Strikes me as odd given the nature of the situation and the business opportunity present here with the county's largest daily newspaper in disarray.

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