As a Ventura County-oriented publication, the VC Reporter tries to avoid spending too much ink covering squabbles in neighboring communities. Yet, this week, it has been difficult not to spend some time thinking about the Santa Barbara News-Press
For those whose thoughts rarely travel further north than Rincon Point, during the past year, the biggest news on the American Riviera has been the Santa Barbara News-Press. July 6 was the one-year anniversary of a meltdown that left only a bare-bones staff at the 152-year-old publication.
The exodus actually began a day earlier, when Don Murphy and George Foulsham — the paper’s deputy managing editor and managing editor resigned. Jerry Roberts, the paper’s editor, resigned the next day and was forced to leave the News-Press offices. City Editor Jane Hulse, Business Editor Michael Todd, and Columnist Barney Brantingham — who had been with the paper for 30 years — resigned in protest later in the day.
To make this very long story short, the staffers were fed up with the meddling of Owner and Co-Publisher Wendy McCaw into the paper’s editorial policies. Aided by her cronies — co-publisher and fiancé Arthur von Wiesenburger and Editorial Page Editor Travis Armstrong — McCaw allegedly tried to kill stories, manipulate coverage, and make insertions without consulting reporters and editors. Dozens of other staffers (including Copy Editor Lindsay Foster, who is a copy editor for the Reporter) have either resigned in support, been forced to quit, or have been outright fired.
A bitter unionization battle in the paper’s newsroom — staff voted 33-6 in September to unionize — is still winding through courtrooms and labor boards; McCaw has filed numerous lawsuits against former staffers, including a $25 million claim against Roberts (the paper also ran a now widely-disputed story in April linking Roberts to child pornography found on a News-Press computer); and advertisers and subscribers have boycotted the paper to the point that its circulation has dropped more than 9 percent over the past year.
Sadly, Santa Barbara is now without a viable newspaper of record. The Santa Barbara Daily Sound, a new daily that launched a few months before the fiasco, has had a boost from the News Press disaster, but it is still limited in scope. The Santa Barbara Independent, like the Reporter, is a weekly publication and can’t replace the regularity of the News Press. Meanwhile, the Pacific Coast Business Times, (where VC Reporter Editor Bill Lascher previously worked) probably provides the Tri-Counties’ best business coverage, but its scope is too limited to replace the community, sports, hard news and arts coverage central to a daily.
But before we think we have it good here in Ventura County we may want to count our blessings. Yes, the Reporter often provides coverage readers wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else in the county, but we remain limited by a weekly production cycle and we must continue to build our credibility and recognition throughout the community.
Meanwhile, the Ventura County Star’s move from Ventura to Camarillo and a hiring freeze imposed by corporate parent Scripps Howard reminds us that in-depth, community-based coverage often loses out to profit-motives.
Without a local television station, Ventura County’s only broadcast news sources are the award-winning KCLU in Thousand Oaks and Ventura-based KVEN.
Like the nation, Ventura County is a thin line away from losing the watchdog that good news reporting beholden to nobody but the public can be. Without such a watchdog, it will be extremely difficult to speak truth to power. The Reporter hopes to expand its efforts to serve that watchdog role, but to do so, it also requires the community, its advertisers, and its subjects to trust that it will offer responsible, quality journalism.
We — and even our competitors in the area — are far from being the News-Press. But let’s not let that change.