The Santa Barbara Seven and the ‘audience of one’

Six editors and a veteran columnist—call them the Santa Barbara Seven*—have left the Santa Barbara News-Press in a dispute with the owner, Wendy McCaw, over ethical concerns involving journalistic standards.

“These are primary ethical issues of the blurring of the line between opinion and fact, editorial page and news page,” former editor Jerry Roberts told the New York Times in explaining the reasons for the departures.

A holding company owned by McCaw, the ex-wife of Craig McCaw, the “cellphone magnate” (as the Times termed him), purchased the News-Press from the New York Times Company in 2000.

A spokesman for Wendy McCaw claimed that the resignations had been triggered by her plans to increase local news coverage. Roberts, however, maintained that the Santa Barbara Seven left because of the meddling of McCaw, new acting publisher Travis Armstrong (who is also the editorial page editor) and co-publisher, Arthur von Wiesenberger (McCaw’s fiancé).

Roberts also told Editor & Publisher magazine that “the incident should be a warning to others who see a new wave of private buyers as the saviors for the troubled industry.”

“There is definitely a downside,” Roberts, 57, told E&P late Sunday, just days after he quit the paper he had edited for four years. “When you have one owner who is very wealthy and used to getting their way, you have this conflict between the audience of the paper and the audience of one — the owner.”

Some of the initial coverage cited reports that editors had been criticized for publishing stories that offended prominent advertisers; Roberts provided some additional insights into the situation.

Several well-reported incidents began the fractured relationship between owner and newsroom, Roberts said, noting the discipline of editors for revealing an address where actor Rob Lowe had planned to build a home and a short item on a drunk driving arrest of editorial page editor Travis Armstrong.

The resignations at the News-Press do raise a number of questions. For those of us who believe in objective-means journalism, it’s deeply troubling to see any newspaper publisher strong-arming journalists in an attempt to alter coverage, whether on behalf of celebrities or colleagues or friends or advertisers. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics suggests that “…Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” and recommends they “…Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.”

So you have to hand it to the Santa Barbara Seven.

They did something rarely seen these days in American business: they acted on principle. To walk away from fairly well-compensated jobs in their chosen profession, late in their careers, takes some courage.

They might argue that they weren’t really given much of a choice by McCaw. A professional journalist who takes his or her role seriously and is pressured to withhold or distort the facts, or slant coverage for the owner’s friends or cronies, either succumbs to the pressure (and sacrifices his or her principles) or quits.

If you take the King’s coin, you must do the King’s bidding—or leave the King’s service. (Perhaps that should be the Queen’s coin, in this case; one friend in Santa Barbara close to the situation likened McCaw to that other controversial Queen, Leona Helmsley.) To their credit, the Santa Barbara Seven refused the Queen’s coin.

That isn’t to question McCaw’s legal right to run the News-Press any way she likes (which may very well include destroying its credibility and running it straight into ground). She owns the newspaper. Some seem confused about this: The Ventura County Star, a newspaper located just down Highway 101 to the south, editorialized (“Journalism 101 in S. Barbara”) that while McCaw may have spent $100 million to purchase the News-Press she shouldn’t “be able to do with it what she wants.”

But newspapers are not mere commodities. When Ms. McCaw bought the 150-year-old newspaper from the New York Times Co. six years ago, she invested in a public trust.

It is a trust she has violated.

Not quite. Unlike radio and television stations, which license the public airwaves, there is nothing public about the ownership of newspapers. They are private enterprises. All citizens enjoy the same First Amendment rights as McCaw. If you don’t like the way she runs the News-Press, you are free to start your own daily newspaper, weekly newspaper, blog, podcast or whatever vehicle you choose to publish or broadcast your views. While I think you can make a strong argument that there is a bond between newspaper and community—a trust, if you like—it is a trust that has to be earned (not purchased or “invested in.”)

And as loopy as McCaw’s world view may be (she had the newspaper adopt a pro-vegetarian stance and editorialize against Thanksgiving turkey dinners; she insists that the word “blond” be spelled with an “e” when used to describe females), I think she and other independent private owners pose less of a threat to the future of newspaper journalism than Jerry Roberts suggests.

There’s an old saying in the newspaper business: there are two kinds of publishers, those who make money so they can publish a newspaper, and those who publish a newspaper so they can make money. McCaw seems to fit in the first category (as do most “ego” publishers who purchase publications after they have made their fortune elsewhere).

If published reports are accurate, and there are 57 journalists in the News-Press newsroom, then McCaw can’t be accused of skimping on news coverage to make money. Many newspapers chains operate on a rough rule of thumb of one newsroom employee for every thousand copies of circulation, which would mean McCaw’s News-Press has some 16 “excess” news staffers.

It is hard to generalize about private ownership and journalistic quality. The Manchester Union-Leader suffered for years from William Loeb’s far-right eccentricities; the McClatchy family, which founded the Sacramento Bee in 1857, published solid newspapers for more than a century. It can be argued that newspaper chains and publicly-owned media companies (those who publish a newspaper so they can make money) are more likely to encourage bland, “rock-no-boat” journalism for fear of offending readers or advertisers and jeopardizing quarterly profits.

It has been the great dynastic American newspaper families (the Grahams, the Sulzbergers) who have backed their newsrooms in publishing controversial stories (Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the recent exposes of NSA wiretaps, international financial tracking and other government anti-terrorism programs). While both the Washington Post Company and the New York Times Company are public entities, family control has meant that these companies are run with more than profits in mind.

Wendy McCaw is not the first local owner of the News-Press to have strongly held views. One of her 20th century predecessors, Thomas More Storke, balanced civic leadership (pushing for Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, Cachuma Reservoir and the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California) with publishing the newspaper, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for his editorials condemning the John Birch Society. (T. M. Storke sold the paper in 1964).

While he dabbled in Democratic politics, Storke nevertheless understood that his newspaper served the community (a constituency broader than an “audience of one”) and that readers expected the News-Press to report “without fear or favor of friend or foe.” He adhered to that philosophy during his long tenure as publisher; it is a philosophy Wendy McCaw would be well served to adopt if she wants her newspaper to make a positive contribution to Santa Barbara.

Full Disclosure: I worked in management at the Santa Barbara News-Press some twenty years ago, briefly, when it was owned by the New York Times Company.

*Editor Jerry Roberts, managing editor George Foulsham, deputy managing editor Donald Murphy, metro editor Jane Hulse, business editor Michael Todd, sports editor Gerry Spratt and “man-about-town” columnist Barney Brantingham.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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8 thoughts on “The Santa Barbara Seven and the ‘audience of one’

  1. Nobody asked me, but …

    What the heck are you doing these days, Jeff? Send me your e-mail address and I’ll add you to the alumni association list.

    Bill Macfadyen
    Santa Barbara

  2. Jeff:

    Good to see your name pop up in the midst of all these bizarre goings-on. Many moons have passed since we were both prowling the halls of the NP (and sinking jump shots up at the gym).

    As for corporate vs. private ownership, there is no guarantee either will produce the desired outcome.

    With McCaw’s $, the News-Press could and should be the best little newspaper in America and the best place to work. But she has shown by her inexplicable behavior that that will never happen. She’ll be lucky not to kill the paper.

    But as we’ve all seen, corporate ownership can yield its own disasters. Corporate execs tend to be slaves to Wall Street, and journalism often suffers due to myopia and sel-interest.

    In the end, it’s not a pretty picture.

    Maybe that’s why the Web is flourishing.

  3. Hello Jeff –
    Has it really been 20 yrs, already, since Trinity Lutheran Church, here in Santa Barbara!
    Dale _____ told me that you’d be a GREAT publisher, & you’ve oustripped his expectations.
    Your children must be in college by now as time moves on.
    Best Wishes
    Bill Redding
    Ph. 805.964-8050

  4. Jeff,
    What a great time to see your name pop up. Eileen and I were just talking about your time at the good old SBNP.

    How are Mazie and the boys? We are all fine here in Lompoc.

    Send me your phone number and e-mail address.

    It’s been to long.


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