Five top editors and a veteran columnist have resigned from the Santa Barbara News-Press, saying Thursday that the newspaper’s billionaire owner had been meddling improperly in the editorial content of the 151-year-old publication.
Editor Jerry Roberts was escorted from the newspaper’s headquarters before noon as several staff members cried and others hurled obscenities at the new publisher, Travis K. Armstrong, the latest in a series of people to run the paper under controversial owner Wendy McCaw.
Six years ago, the newspaper’s journalists reacted with relief, even euphoria, when McCaw purchased the paper from the New York Times Co. They welcomed the ascension of a local owner -- known for her environmentalism and philanthropy -- over an investor-owned chain that had made sharp cost-cutting and layoffs routine.
But Thursday, reporters and editors described an “awful” and “surreal” scene -- what Santa Barbara’s alternative paper called a “self-inflicted blood bath.” Several News-Press employees and the city’s leader said McCaw’s tenure should give pause to the many journalists across the country who had been pining for private ownership of their papers.
“When the newspaper was up for sale, we were wishing for a local owner,” said Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum. “Now we have one, and all I can say is, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ ”
The journalists who resigned Wednesday and Thursday cited several instances in which McCaw injected herself into areas they said were typically left to journalists.
One dispute arose when she directed that the paper not publish a short article about a drunk driving sentence given to Armstrong, then the editorial page editor and soon to become publisher. Another dispute involved her reprimand of a reporter and three editors for publishing the address where actor Rob Lowe planned to build his “dream home.”
Several of the editors said the final straw for them came in the last week, when McCaw appointed Armstrong as publisher. The often sharp-tongued editorial writer told the staff he planned to directly oversee some news coverage.
Roberts and the other departing journalists believed that would obliterate the line that traditionally separates newspapers’ news-gathering operations from their opinion pages.
“I think there is a good reason that American newspapers keep straight news separate from the opinion pages,” Roberts said. “It’s so readers can tell the difference between fact and opinion. To do anything that would lower that barrier is a very slippery slope.”
McCaw and Armstrong did not respond to requests for comment.
A newspaper spokesman declined to discuss departing editors’ specific complaints and blamed the exodus on editorial differences.
“For a number of months, there has been a discussion between Mrs. McCaw and senior editors about the direction of the News-Press,” said the spokesman, Sam Singer. “She desired to have a stronger emphasis on local news, and these individuals didn’t like that emphasis, and so they decided to part company.”
Roberts, a former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, strongly disagreed with that characterization. He said that as News-Press editor he had aimed to increase local content, and he noted that the newspaper had been cited for general excellence by the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. in three of his four years there.
Those joining Roberts in leaving the News-Press are veterans, most with decades in the news business: Managing Editor George Foulsham, Deputy Managing Editor Don Murphy, Business Editor Michael Todd, Metro Editor Jane Hulse and 46-year News-Press fixture Barney Brantingham, whose column ran five days a week.
“I still love the News-Press,” Brantingham said in an interview. “I just can’t work under these unprofessional conditions. I just hate to see what has happened to the newspaper.”
Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, called it an “amazing commentary” to have so many journalists leave at a time when jobs in the industry are hard to come by. “They must have felt like they were under severe pressure,” Nelson said.
The Santa Barbara News-Press, with a daily circulation of about 40,000, has long had a reputation as a solid midsize newspaper. For much of the last century, the newspaper was dominated by owner Thomas M. Storke, a firebrand who briefly served as an appointed U.S. senator and who helped bring a University of California campus and a growth-spurring reservoir to the region.
McCaw, 55, bought the paper in 2000 for an estimated $100 million or more, using a fortune she built from a divorce settlement she won from cellphone magnate Craig McCaw.
She immediately gained a reputation as an iconoclastic newspaperwoman, favoring strong environmental protections in many instances but also demonstrating a libertarian’s distrust of government. An early editorial during her tenure called for an end to the Thanksgiving tradition of eating turkey because of the suffering of the “unwilling participant.”
Notoriously publicity-shy, the rookie media mogul drew unwanted attention with a protracted fight to prevent public access to the beach near her Hope Ranch estate. She waged another court battle with a former boyfriend, who she charged had wooed her to get at her riches.
McCaw’s onetime lawyer Joseph Cole, who served as her publisher for a time, helped buffer the newsroom from a lot of her demands, many News-Press journalists say. Cole left the position in late April, and McCaw took over for several months as co-publisher, along with her fiance, Arthur von Wiesenberger, before appointing Armstrong to the post.
The presence of Von Wiesenberger -- a former restaurant critic for the News-Press who has been a consultant to the bottled-water industry -- did not salve concerns among reporters and editors about lack of savvy in the executive suite.
A serious snit arose in early June, when News-Press journalists prepared to publish a report that said Armstrong, then editor of the editorial pages, had been fined $1,600 and sentenced to four days in jail or community service for drunk driving.
In May, police found the journalist driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction; his blood alcohol level later measured at 0.23%, nearly three times the legal limit. The News-Press reported the arrest, and the alternative Santa Barbara Independent dubbed him “Wrong Way” Armstrong.
When he was sentenced, Armstrong reportedly told his colleagues that a second article would unfairly single him out. And word was delivered from McCaw’s representatives that the news story would not run, according to two people familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they feared being punished for speaking about internal company matters.
Less than a month later, McCaw named Armstrong as publisher.
On June 22, controversy arose again when the newspaper ran a story about Lowe’s successful bid to convince the Montecito Planning Commission that he should be allowed to build a 10,000-plus-square-foot home despite a neighbor’s protests. After Lowe protested about the publication of his address, McCaw sent written reprimands to the journalists, saying they had invaded the actor’s privacy and could have endangered his family.
Some journalists at the paper complained that McCaw was trying to protect her rich and famous friends and acquaintances.
Murphy, who quit Wednesday as deputy managing editor, said many readers might support McCaw’s position but her response seemed disproportionate.
“That’s a newsroom discussion worth a lot of talk,” Murphy said. “It shouldn’t just be issued suddenly as some edict from on high.”
Singer, the paper’s spokesman, said Santa Barbara residents were “fortunate to have a local owner who cares deeply about the quality of the news delivered to the readers.”
Roberts, 57, said the paper would go on. “But it’s a sad chapter for the paper, and it’s sad for the community,” the outgoing editor said. “How it turns out is anybody’s guess.”