Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006 | Shortly after leaving the Army in 1960, I decided to become a newspaperman. The idea came to me one morning lying in bed, and since the bed happened to be in Santa Barbara, I decided to start my career at the local newspaper, the News-Press. I wandered into their offices on Anacapa Street that afternoon, asked for Mr. Storke, the owner-publisher, and to my great surprise was rejected. Get some experience, they said.
I had revenge of sorts a few years later when I won the Thomas M. Storke award for international journalism. Storke, founder of what became the News-Press in 1901, is one of the legendary names in California publishing, up there with Chandler, Hearst and McClatchy. For most of the past century, Santa Barbara, though a small town by California city standards, has had a good newspaper to serve it.
Today, the News-Press is a catastrophe, victim of the whims of a rich and capricious owner who decided she didn’t like some of its columnists and editors (remind you of any other newspaper?). The owner, Wendy McCaw, an animal rights activist with a $600 million divorce settlement from Nextel founder Craig McCaw, bought the News-Press as a toy, began dating the food critic (now there’s a combo for good restaurant seating) and started arranging the news to favor friends and punish enemies.
When her top editors, reporters and columnists quit, she replaced them with cronies. She has made the historic News-Press into a national laughing stock.
The good newspapers in this country, and there are a few left, understand they are a public trust. They exist not to keep owners in fast cars and mansions in La Jolla and Montecito, but to report the news fairly and keep an eye on government. I’ve worked for newspapers like that. A good newspaper lives on its reputation, and it takes a foolish owner to put reputation at risk.
McCaw bought the News-Press from The New York Times in 2000. There were other bids, including one from Copley Publishing (how, one wonders, would Copley’s blind Republicanism have fit in a liberal city like Santa Barbara?), but only McCaw would pay $100 million for a newspaper with 40,000 circulation. For a while, she stayed out of the way, but this year, now engaged to the food critic, a gent with the exotic name of Arthur (Nipper) von Wiesenberger (graciously elevated by his fiancée to “co-publisher”), she started to censor stories she didn’t like – much like Neil Morgan’s columns were censored and my final column killed by the local owner-publisher.