Friday, July 7, 2006

She’s blonde, she’s rich, and she owns a newspaper in California. What she doesn’t have are editors.

Five top editors and a veteran columnist resigned from the Santa Barbara News-Press this week, complaining that billionaire-libertarian-environmentalist owner Wendy McCaw was undermining the paper’s credibility and sticking her nose into the newsroom.

“I feel very good about it,” says editor Jerry Roberts, 57, who had worked at the paper for four years before resigning Thursday. “It was the right decision. She’s had seven publishers in under six years. One might think the lack of stability is a problem.”

In addition to Mr. Roberts, business editor Michael Todd, managing editor George Foulsham, deputy managing editor Don Murphy, metropolitan editor Jane Hulse and columnist Barney Brantingham also resigned.

“When they forced me out of the building, some of the staffers were trying to hug me,” Mr. Roberts says.

The last straw, the editors said, was when Mrs. McCaw — who in 1995 received $500 million in a bitter divorce from Seattle-based telecommunications mogul Craig McCaw — appointed editorial page editor Travis K. Armstrong as publisher. Mrs. McCaw earlier had killed an article about the sentencing of Mr. Armstrong on a drunken-driving charge.

Mr. Armstrong was said to be widely disliked inside and outside the newsroom.

“He alienated much of the community,” Mr. Roberts said.

Mrs. McCaw was said to have become upset when the paper published Rob Lowe’s address in a story about the actor’s efforts to build his “dream house.” Mrs. McCaw was said to have told employees to refrain from publishing addresses of people in the news and insisted that employes not talk to outsiders about the newspaper’s internal affairs.

“The newsroom sanctity has been breached,” Mr. Todd told the Associated Press. “We don’t think it is or can be an ethical newsroom in the future.”

Mrs. McCaw could not be reached for comment. In a note to readers on its Web site, Mr. Armstrong confirmed the paper’s dedication to “personal privacy, fairness and good sense.” He could not be reached for comment.

An animal rights activist and philanthropist, Mrs. McCaw, 55, often put her own personal touches on stories, including one opposing the consumption of turkeys on Thanksgiving because of the suffering of the “unwilling participant.”

Mrs. McCaw — who purchased the paper in 2000 from the New York Times Co. — is no stranger to controversy.

Her lengthy divorce proceedings revealed that she needed $190,000 a month to support her lifestyle. The settlement — mostly in Nextel stock — awarded her several boats and planes and four homes in California. She recently lost a court battle against Santa Barbara County to keep the public from walking on the beachfront of her 25-acre estate.

Mrs. McCaw is now engaged to former nightclub owner and bottled water connoisseur Arthur “Nipper” Von Weisenberger. He was recently named co-publisher of the newspaper by Mrs. McCaw.

The Santa Barbara News-Press is the oldest newspaper in Southern California and has a circulation of about 44,000. “It’s a wonderful paper,” Mr. Roberts said. “We really had a great staff.”

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