Santa Barbara media mess underscores importance of trust yxy xy xy 

One of the great things about working for a newspaper is that it’s one of the few jobs where people — often total strangers — feel no hesitation about telling you exactly what they think of your place of employment.

Love them or hate them — and no matter how good the paper might be, it’s usually the latter — people care passionately about their newspapers, developing a delicate bond with them over time regardless of how the coverage or opinions might sometimes infuriate them.

Ultimately, it becomes an issue of trust, which is why the vast majority of newspapers go to great lengths to insure that there will be no breach in confidence and that readers understand that there is a difference between the advertising and business division and that a wall exists between the news and editorial side.

And that is the backdrop for one of the biggest stories in media circles these days, a dramatic editorial unraveling that has taken place in Southern California — but one full of Bay Area connections.

Last week six of the top editors and the star columnist at the Santa Barbara News-Press resigned in protest over a decision by the paper’s rich but undeniably wacky owner to name the paper’s editorial page editor as acting publisher. It followed a series of moves that had damaged the paper’s credibility, but the mass meltdown culminated in acting publisher Travis Armstrong leading the paper’s highly respected executive editor, Jerry Roberts, out the door of the News-Press’ mission-style office as fellow employees cried and erupted in anger.

I know how they felt because Roberts ran the San Francisco Chronicle before the Hearst Corp. bought it and showed most of the paper’s top editors the exit. He is one of the brightest and finest editors I have ever known, and the Chronicle’s considerable and lingering loss brought instant cachet and gravitas to the News-Press when he landed there. And that will go a long way in explaining why the story has generated almost as much media interest as Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt — the difference being that in this case it resulted not in a red card, but in a red flag.

Publishers make decisions to produce profit and stability for newspapers. Editors run the newsroom and determine daily story content. Opinion page editors dictate a paper’s stance on issues. These lines are clearly marked and rarely crossed, because when they are, you have ... well, what could charitably be called some questions.

And they’re asking them all over the lovely coast town of Santa Barbara, which is why a once well-regarded newspaper with about 40,000 readers is losing them rapidly and why the story has been detailed in more than 100 media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. And, it almost goes without saying, it had received scant coverage in the News-Press itself until late this week, when the paper’s owner incredibly published a front-page note accusing the departed staffers of inaccurate and biased reporting.

"When you read the newspaper in the morning now, you can’t tell if the stories are going to be true," Santa Barbara’s Mayor Marty Blum told me. "Will the stories be full of opinions? When the paper was up for sale, we really wished for a local owner. Andnow, as I’m telling people, be careful what you wish for."

Reclusive billionaire Wendy McCaw, who came by her fortune through a divorce settlement with telecommunications magnate Craig McCaw, purchased the paper six years ago and left her imprint primarily on the editorial page. That will explain how McCaw’s pro-animal and environmental views came through in editorials calling for the protection of pelicans and advising people not to kill turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Recently, Armstrong was arrested for drunk driving, a story that was covered by the News-Press. But then a follow-up story on his court appearance was killed, and after some more tug of war played out in the newsroom, it was clear McCaw’s shadow was inching ever closer. When Roberts returned from vacation last week, he found that Armstrong had been named acting publisher, leading to the exodus.

"The way the whole thing played out would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad," Roberts told me. "I really loved the paper."

San Francisco’s own master of disaster — publicist Sam Singer, who specializes in damage control — was called in to spin the episode as a simple difference of opinion focusing on McCaw’s desire to cover more local news. That just happens to be Roberts’ area of expertise, but why quibble — that’s not what this story is about.

It’s about what happens when the separation of church and state disappears, and those involved lose their religion.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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