News-Press reporters unionize, confront publisher

It was a big news day around the Santa Barbara News-Press situation. Here is some of what I've confirmed tonight:

  • Star investigative reporter Scott Hadly joined the exodus, according to newsroom sources who said he resigned and cleaned out his desk. He cited owner Wendy McCaw's front-page note to readers this morning that characterized the meltdown of her paper as a disagreement about local coverage. Most staffers appear to view that as an outright lie printed on the front page, and more resignations are predicted.
  • At 3:30 Thursday afternoon, about thirty of the remaining staff — including almost all reporters — stood up at their desks and walked silently to publisher Travis Armstrong's office to present him with a letter announcing that they are now represented by the Graphic Communications Conference of the Teamsters union. The letter demanded that Armstrong observe journalism ethics, restore the traditional separation of news and opinion, and invite the six top editors who have resigned to return. The staffers requested an answer in writing by 5 pm Monday. Armstrong, described as shaken by the show of solidarity, called the action inappropriate and ordered them to return to their desks.
  • Reporters and other sympathetic staffers plan to silently protest outside the News-Press offices during their lunch break at 12:15 pm Friday. They were barred from speaking to the news media or divulging anything about the internal workings of the News-Press in a memo last week, so no current employees are expected to speak. It's possible, however, that Hadly or ex-columnist Barney Brantingham will appear.
  • Veteran journalist and author Lou Cannon, who lives in Santa Barbara, submitted a letter to the Santa Barbara Independent blasting the ethical violations and direction of the News-Press under McCaw's and Armstrong's leadership. Cannon, a former political reporter at the Washington Post and elsewhere, is a biographer of Ronald Reagan who also wrote a book about the Los Angeles Police Department. Cannon addresses the letter to Armstrong, the opinion page editor who last week was made publisher with full control over the newsroom — shortly after then-editor Jerry Roberts was forbidden from reporting Armstrong's guilty plea for drunk driving. Cannon urges Armstrong to resign. Excerpt:

    Wendy McCaw owns the NP, and she is entitled as its owner to endorse any idea, no matter how goofy. Once upon a time in our country, editorial pages were indistinguishable from news pages. Opinions and facts mingled freely, and most newspapers represented a faction, party, or cause. This changed throughout time not because publishers became better people, but because they learned — as Mrs. McCaw has not — that people don’t trust the news when it is merely an expression of opinion. In order to sell more newspapers and raise advertising rates, publishers realized they needed the readers’ trust. That is how modern newspapers evolved.

    It is not an “editorial difference” with Mr. Roberts when the owner, former food writer, and you suppress a story that you have pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. That is a violation of your own previous policy because you obviously put your personal embarrassment ahead of the news. I understand that your rationale is that you are not a public figure. If so, you should take your name off the masthead and give up your column. You are the public face of the newspaper — all the more so because of your owner’s reclusiveness — and readers have a legitimate interest in your transgressions, as they do those of other public figures. (It was a foolish suppression, since more people now know of your plea than would have if you just published the appropriate small item in the paper. But that’s beside the point.)...

    We all have to answer for what we do. In time, advertisers will learn they are paying rates for a newspaper that claims 41,000 subscribers and now has 38,000 and dropping. What will Mrs. McCaw and the former food writer do then — fire themselves? More likely, you will get the blame, especially if the declining paper is full of wire-service stories instead of local news, as it is today. But there are still honorable courses of action open to you. You could resign. Or you could write a column apologizing for suppressing the story about your actions, which are not trivial....

    The sad footnote to the resignations of good journalists was provided by the Los Angeles Times, which apparently tried to get a comment from you or the owner and instead had to talk to someone in San Francisco, who was a NP spokesperson. That’s a strange practice for a local paper, don’t you think?

    I hereby cancel my subscription to the Santa Barbara News-Press, which has forfeited the trust of the community.

  • Cissy Ross, the paper's former business editor, announced in a letter printed in the Independent that she also is cancelling her subscription. "While journalists elsewhere are fighting for the right to print articles of important national interest, it saddens me that the NP is becoming a national symbol of failing to provide basic community reporting. I encourage others in the community to cancel their subscriptions in protest. This deeply saddens me, as I began every morning with my local newspaper. When I worked at the NP, I gave up many hours with my family to make sure I did my part to contribute something of significance to the local coverage, as does everyone in the newsroom."

Friday coverage in L.A. Times, plus breaking news on LA Observed.

Previously on LA Observed:
Media massacre in Santa Barbara
How to become a national joke
News-Press names new editors
Vanity Fair and NYT parachute in
Dueling versions in Santa Barbara

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The Media
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