SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The newspaper in this seaside Southern California community isn’t just reporting the news these days.
It is the news.
Mass resignations, rallies and charges and countercharges of newsroom meddling and biased coverage have rocked the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Earlier this month, mounting tensions between the owner and staff spilled into public view, with nearly every top editor at the 41,000-circulation paper quitting in protest.
The reason they gave: Owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw was telling them what to print and what not to. McCaw shot back with a front-page note to readers saying those who quit were upset they could no longer inject their personal opinions into the newspaper’s coverage.
The tumult is the talk of this sunny Pacific playground where Oprah Winfrey, Michael Douglas and others from the rich-and-famous set have multimillion-dollar homes.
“They waved bye-bye to honest journalists,” resident Jon Williams said. “I don’t think this town is going to let this paper go to hell.”
According to departed News-Press journalists, McCaw violated journalistic standards when she killed a story in June about the drunken driving sentencing of editorial page editor and current acting publisher Travis Armstrong. McCaw also reprimanded the staff for publishing the address where “West Wing” actor Rob Lowe wants to build a mansion, then quickly instituted a policy saying the publisher must approve the publication of any address.
From the staff’s perspective, McCaw had compromised their ability to report objectively and thoroughly, said Scott Hadly, an eight-year News-Press reporter who was among nine editorial staffers who quit over the past two weeks.
“She’s trashed her own newspaper,” Hadly said. “I can’t fathom why she did that.”
The reclusive McCaw was married to cellular phone pioneer Craig McCaw. When they divorced in 1997 she received stakes worth at least $460 million in Nextel Communications and Nextlink Communications, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported at the time. McCaw, 55, had no background in journalism when she bought the News-Press from The New York Times Co. in 2000 for a reported $100 million.
McCaw was out of the country Monday and unavailable for comment, according to her publicist, who provided a statement from her about the newspaper’s situation.
“I respect the traditions of journalism and believe the best way to run a paper is to hire good people and let them do their job,” McCaw said. “But when they don’t do the job according to our editorial policies, then it is my responsibility as owner and publisher to make whatever corrections are needed to get things back on track.”