Dressed in black and their mouths taped shut, reporters and staff of the Santa Barbara News-Press staged a protest Friday over a recent wave of resignations at the newspaper.
A crowd of more than 300 supporters roared with applause and shouts when about 25 employees emerged from the 151-year-old newspaper's Spanish-style landmark building and walked to a nearby park.
The protest was the latest public display of newsroom tension that began when staff accused the daily's owner of meddling in coverage. Nine employees have resigned; copy editor Colin Powers quit Friday, joining six top editors and two writers who left earlier in the 2-week-old dispute.
Staffers have been ordered not to speak about internal operations, reporter Melinda Burns said, adding that they were threatened with being fired if they did.
"We are very sorry we can't speak, but thank you for coming," Burns said, stepping away from the microphone as members of the group put duct tape over their mouths.
"What happened to freedom of the press? Behind me are reporters with gags over their mouths," said a tearful Barney Brantingham, a longtime News-Press columnist who resigned last week.
Interim Publisher Travis Armstrong said he watched part of the protest, which he blamed partly on the paper's enemies, among them developers and politicians.
"I do recognize that some of the people who attended the rally had political axes to grind with the News-Press editorial page," said Armstrong, who was editorial page editor before being named interim publisher.
He said employees who protested would not be disciplined, adding he was disappointed by how the newspaper's order not to discuss internal operations had been portrayed.
"We do have personnel policies about talking to the media, just as other companies do," Armstrong said.
One of those who resigned, reporter Scott Hadly, said a list of demands was presented to management Thursday. He said employees want restoration of journalistic ethics, reinstatement of editors forced to resign, negotiation of a new contract and recognition of the Teamsters union as their exclusive bargaining unit.
Those who quit have said owner Wendy McCaw has interfered with their journalistic work.
They say that, among other things, she killed a story reporting on Armstrong's recent sentencing for drunken driving. The newspaper had previously reported on his arrest.
In a note to readers published Thursday, McCaw said the resignations were prompted by her unwillingness to let editors and reporters "flavor the news with their personal opinions."