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Saturday, July 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Angry at owner, newspaper editors resign

Los Angeles Times

Five top editors and a veteran columnist resigned from the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press, saying the newspaper's billionaire owner, Wendy McCaw, had been meddling improperly in the editorial content of the 150-year-old publication.

Editor Jerry Roberts was escorted from the newspaper's headquarters before noon Thursday as several staff members cried and others hurled obscenities at Travis Armstrong, the latest in a series of publishers running the paper for McCaw.

McCaw bought the paper in 2000 for at least an estimated $100 million, using a fortune she built from a divorce settlement she won from Seattle cellphone magnate Craig McCaw.

The newspaper's journalists had reacted with relief, even euphoria, when she purchased the paper from The New York Times Co. six years ago. They welcomed the ascension of a local owner — known for her environmentalism and philanthropy — instead of ownership by one of the investor-owned chains that have made sharp cost-cutting and layoffs routine.

But reporters and editors described an "awful" and "surreal" scene Thursday, what Santa Barbara's alternative paper deemed a "self-inflicted bloodbath."

"When the newspaper was up for sale, we were wishing for a local owner," said Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum. "Now we have one and all I can say is, 'Be careful what you wish for.' "

The journalists who resigned Wednesday and Thursday cited several instances in which they say McCaw intruded in areas typically left to journalists.

One dispute arose when she directed that the paper kill a short story about the drunken-driving sentence meted out to Armstrong, her editorial-page editor who would soon become interim publisher. She also later reprimanded a reporter and three editors for publishing the address where actor Rob Lowe planned to build his "dream home."

Erasing the line

Several of the editors said the final straw came in the past week, when McCaw appointed Armstrong publisher. He immediately told the staff he planned to oversee news coverage directly.

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To Roberts and the other veteran journalists, that would obliterate the traditional line that separates newspapers' news-gathering operations from their opinion pages.

"I think there is a good reason that American newspapers keep straight news separate from the opinion pages," Roberts said. "It's so readers can tell the difference between fact and opinion."

McCaw and Armstrong did not respond to requests for comment. But the newspaper acknowledged the resignations Friday in a published note to readers, signed by Armstrong.

Earlier, a spokesman for the paper declined to discuss specific complaints, blaming the exodus on editorial differences.

"For a number of months there has been a discussion between Mrs. McCaw and senior editors about the direction of the News-Press," said the spokesman, Sam Singer. "She desired to have a stronger emphasis on local news, and these individuals didn't like that emphasis, and so they decided to part company."

Roberts, a former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, disagreed with that characterization. He said his editorship had been pointed at increasing local content and the newspaper had been cited for general excellence by the California Newspaper Publishers Association in three of his four years there.

Those joining Roberts in leaving the News-Press are veterans, most with decades in the news business: managing editor George Foulsham, deputy managing editor Don Murphy, business editor Michael Todd, metro editor Jane Hulse and Barney Brantingham, a 46-year fixture at the News-Press whose "Off the Beat" column ran five days a week.

"I still love the News-Press," Brantingham said. "I just can't work under these unprofessional conditions."

The turmoil continued Friday with the resignation of sports editor Gerry Spratt. Spratt, who had worked at the paper for eight years, stepped down because he said management didn't value his department and had cut two reporting positions in the past two years.

"Losing two writers was a big deal," Spratt said. "I didn't want to be part of an institution that had abandoned journalism."

Pro-turkey editorial

After buying the paper, which has a circulation of about 40,000, McCaw gained a reputation as an iconoclastic newspaperwoman, favoring strong environmental protections and demonstrating a libertarian's distrust of government. An early editorial called for an end to the Thanksgiving tradition of eating turkey, because of the suffering of the "unwilling participants."

She also drew unwanted attention with a protracted fight to prevent public access to the beach near her estate.

McCaw's one-time lawyer, Joe Cole, served as her publisher and, in the opinion of many of the newspaper's journalists, helped buffer the newsroom from many of the owner's demands. But Cole left the job in May, and McCaw took over as co-publisher, along with her fiancÚ, Arthur Von Wiesenberger.

The presence of Von Wiesenberger — a restaurant critic for the News-Press — did not salve concerns among reporters and editors about lack of savvy in the executive suite.

A snit arose in early June, when News-Press journalists prepared to publish a report that said Armstrong, then editor of the editorial pages, had been fined $1,600 and faced four days in jail or community service for a drunken-driving conviction.

The News-Press reported the arrest in a story. When he was sentenced, Armstrong reportedly told his colleagues a second story would unfairly single him out. Word then was delivered from McCaw's representatives that the news story would not run, according to two people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named.

Less than a month later, McCaw named Armstrong her interim publisher.

On June 22, controversy arose again when the newspaper ran a story about Lowe's successful bid to persuade the Montecito Planning Commission that he should be able to build a more-than-10,000-square-foot home, despite a neighbor's protests. After Lowe protested to Armstrong, McCaw sent written reprimands to the journalists, saying they had invaded the actor's privacy and could have endangered his family.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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