Santa Barbara mess explained

This month's American Journalism Review reconstructs the abrupt decline of the Santa Barbara News-Press under owner Wendy McCaw and her boyfriend, now calling himself the Baron Arthur von Wiesenberger but described in the piece as "a well-known restaurateur, food writer and consultant to the bottled water industry." Former editor Jerry Roberts comes off as a journalism hero, while McCaw and her Los Angeles-based flack, Agnes Huff, don't come off well at all:

McCaw was so determined to discredit Roberts and his allies that she assigned publicist Agnes Huff to dissuade the Society of Professional Journalists from honoring them with an ethics award. The e-mail Huff sent to the organization contained factual errors, referring to the "Santa Monica" News-Press, and was "not at all germane," says Gary Hill, chair of the SPJ ethics committee.

A week before SPJ's Chicago convention, a News-Press reporter called Jerry Roberts at home asking about a confidential $500,000 breach of contract action McCaw had filed against him. When Roberts inquired how he knew about the secret arbitration filing, the reporter replied that McCaw's attorney had delivered a copy to him at the News-Press, says Roberts' lawyer, Andrine Smith. A few days later, Huff publicly blamed Roberts for revealing the existence of the confidential legal action to the Los Angeles Times, a charge both Smith and Times reporter James Rainey dispute. "There were plenty of folks both inside and outside the newsroom," says Rainey, "who knew about it."

The story by Susan Paterno says that the dozens of News-Press staffers who quit over the paper's ethics or were fired have received community support in Santa Barbara in the form of "frequent acts of kindness bestowed by random citizens: free meals at restaurants, free services at an office supplies store, free cups of coffee "and more free drinks than I can count," says [former staffer] Michael Todd.

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