Amateur Hour

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Amateur Hour

For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Things might be getting back to normal, more or less, at the Santa Barbara News-Press, where six top editors and a columnist walked out last week in a staff revolt that sent shivers through the normally peaceful town.

Acting Publisher Travis Armstrong, whose arrest for drunk driving was only one of the paper's problems, today announced the appointment of four new editors, most promoted from within.

In his press release, Armstrong managed to misspell the new city editor's name, but that's a minor crime compared to what's been going on at the paper recently.

Most of the chaos revolves around Wendy McCaw, who bought the paper from the New York Times in 2000.

The paper's staff rebelled, according to the L.A. Times, after McCaw or her associates killed a story about Armstrong's sentencing for DUI, reprimanded staff members for publishing the planned location of actor Rob Lowe's house, and said no one could talk to outsiders about the paper's internal business.

The final straw came almost two weeks ago, when McCaw appointed Armstrong as acting publisher, with oversight of the newsroom. Bear in mind that Armstrong also headed the editorial page, which means that he was suddenly in charge of both the paper's opinions and its news coverage, a big no-no in the newspaper world. Those two have to be separate, or else how could a reader separate fact from judgment?

Editor Jerry Roberts quit on Thursday and was escorted from the building, the LA Times reported, "as several staff members cried and others hurled epithets" at Armstrong.

Roberts said in an interview with the trade paper Editor and Publisher that the incident should be a warning to others who see private buyers as the saviors of a troubled newspaper industry.

"When you have one owner who is very wealthy and used to getting their way," Roberts said, "you have this conflict between the audience of the paper and the audience of one, the owner."

Although McCaw had long used the editorial page to promote her views, Roberts said, she had usually not tried to influence news coverage. When that changed, his position became untenable.

He warned E & P that the recent wave of newspaper purchases by local investors should be looked at carefully in the wake of the crisis at the News-Press. He pointed to recent purchases of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and the Times Leader, of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania from corporate entities, as well as speculation that the Tribune Company might sell the LA Times to a local owner.

And yet in a note to News-Press readers on Friday, Armstrong tried to pass off the paper's lack of corporate ties as the reason for the staff uprising. "Our strength is our independence," he wrote, "and that independence doesn't always sit well with everyone."

In Editor & Publisher yesterday, Don Murphy, the News-Press's former deputy managing editor, who was the first to resign, was quoted as saying he had been pleased when McCaw bought the paper. The fact that she was not beholden to stockholders "seemed like a plus," Murphy said. "But she had no experience with newspapers, no knowledge of newspapers, and it was not a traditional [private] ownership, handed down generation to generation." In the same E & P story, columnist Barney Brantingham, who had been at the paper for 46 years before quitting last week, called the McCaw situation "amateur hour."

He said wealthy newspaper owners like McCaw "don't understand the profession of journalism."

The LA Times quoted Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum as saying, "When the newspaper was up for sale, we were wishing for a local owner. Now we have one, and all I can say is 'be careful what you wish for.'"

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan