Friday, July 07, 2006

Hometown Soap Opera

Santa Barbara is a prime locale along the coast, a place that lends itself as a setting for the most sordid of tales. This week, reality dovetailed nicely with fantasy in a real-life soap opera involving the hometown newspaper.

Yesterday, July 6th, 5 editors and at least one featured columnist for the Santa Barbara News Press resigned in protest of actions taken by owner Wendy McCaw, while a sixth added his resignation today:

The turmoil at the Santa Barbara News-Press continued Friday with the resignation of a sixth top editor.

Sports editor Gerry Spratt, who worked at the paper for six years, stepped down for undisclosed reasons, said Sam Singer, a spokesman for owner Wendy McCaw.

Spratt's move follows the departures this week of editor Jerry Roberts, managing editor George Foulsham and deputy managing editor Don Murphy, as well as the business and metro editors and a longtime columnist.

The editors said they left the paper because McCaw and her closest associates were increasingly meddlesome.

Columnist CW Nevius of the SF Chronicle had these comments in discussing the departure of former colleague Jerry Roberts and others:

It all crescendoed this week. Popular business editor Michael Todd resigned as well as three other senior editors. Long-time columnist Barney Brantingham also gave notice and when Roberts returned from a vacation to Crete (Crete? Really?) he turned in his resignation, setting off a newsroom scene in which there was reported weeping and hugging.

Armstrong, demonstrating a remarkable tin ear for the moment, decided to come out, put an arm on Roberts and tell him he had to leave, which was enough to trigger the profanity and shouting from staffers upset at Robert's departure. In general, you'd have to say things could have been handled a little better.

Today, on the front page of the News-Press, under the story "Pelican Precautions Pay Off,'' (apparently the big-billed birds are begging for fish less often) Armstrong announces the departures, saying that "newspapers, like companies and families, have differences of opinion.''

In the news business, that's what we call an understatement.

The upshot? McCaw and the News-Press look like small time operators, who think they can turn a public trust into a country club newsletter. Roberts and the editors come across as paragons of journalism, standing up to bad bosses, censorship, and dumb editing. And everyone else around the country gets a good laugh.

Additionally, he links to some very unflattering local coverage here. When you're being skewered for violating non-existent corporate policies, you (should) know you've become a laughing stock, even if overnight.

Where does the News-Press go from here? Credibility is the stock-in-trade in the newspaper business (ask the NY Times) and right now the News-Press' reservoir is nearly gone.

This was the talk of the newsroom at the Times today, and we make no bones about wanting to target News-Press advertisers as a viable alternative to a flagging media vehicle.

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