Monday, July 16, 2007

Why They Pulled The Plug on S.B. Newsroom

Santa Barbara Newsroom. Debuted, April 2nd. Shut down, July 13th. A mere 102 days. But that was pretty much as long as it ever was intended to last.

Conceived as a way to keep eight fired reporters practicing their craft as they awaited reinstatement to their old jobs both the reporters and the Teamsters Union that backed them in the venture, anticipated that if the NLRB acted it would be sooner rather than later and in the form of going to court to get an injunction requiring News-Press owner Wendy McCaw to hire them back. Those hopes were dashed when the NLRB declined to pursue injunctive relief.

So instead of waiting four to six months to be reinstated they are now looking at a time frame of 12 to 18 months. That changed the whole picture.

"Not getting the injunction was a big blow. We expected to be back at our jobs by now, but when we learned we wouldn't be getting the injunction we knew we would have to keep running the Newsroom site indefinitely." This according to Melinda Burns, one of the fired reporters, whom I spoke to by phone on Friday. "But we have to get ready for trial (the upcoming NLRB hearing that starts August 14th) and we don't have the money to continue."

The biggest obstacle that S.B. Newsroom faced was the inability to generate enough revenue to sustain an eight member news gathering staff. As long as they were willing to work without pay they had that hurdle cleared. But with unemployment benefits running out all involved had to start thinking about how they would support themselves over the next year to year-and-a-half.

They made an appeal for donations and raised some money, although Burns declined to say how much. They never seriously considered running ads on the site. According to Burns being an advertiser supported commercial site didn't meld with their message of ethical journalism. "Another consideration we took into account was not competing for a narrow ad base against the Indy and Sound, two papers that have done a great job in getting our story out." Plus ad revenue would never have covered the salaries of eight people.

What they really needed and looked for, but never were able to find, was a benefactor who was willing to support the project by providing enough funding to pay the salaries of the staff for 12 to 18 months.

Once it was clear that no one would step forward, the decision to shut down was a quick one which Burns added they were all glad they made. All eight are sticking around to continue the fight against McCaw with the exception of Barney McManigal who goes off to Oxford in September.

As for fighting McCaw, Burns hopes they are not alone. "It's not just our fight but it's the community's fight." Burns' sense is that there's not much support for McCaw out in the community.

Burns doesn't want to wait around while McCaw endlessly appeals every ruling that goes against her. "I want my job back now!" She feels that it's action on the part of the community, not the NLRB or the courts, that will force McCaw to change her ways.

Although S.B. Newsroom was short lived Burns said she was "glad we did it." She is very proud of the effort the Newsroom staff made to do serious journalism and news reporting.

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With S.B. Newsroom going off-line what's the future of local news reporting in Santa Barbara?

The Daily Sound recently introduced a blog style news site in addition to their page reader site.

The Independent has recently remade and beefed up their website. And of course there is Edhat which is now adding community correspondents; Bill Etling, Santa Ynez; Rochelle Rose, Goleta and J'Amy Brown, Montecito.

What's the status of the local news venture that former News-Press employee (and Goleta's most famous non-resident) Bill Macfadyen has been long-rumoured to be starting up? I haven't spoken with him but I understand that he's still fundraising for Noozhawk, an online community newspaper, without the paper.

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There's a good essay on McCaw's notion of "bias" over at The Averageman's Blog.

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Update your bookmarks! This blog is moving to a new location on the web. As of tomorrow, Craig Smith's Blog will be found at a new web address,

All requests to my old web address will be automatically redirected to the new one. If you find me through Edhat, as so many of you do, they will have the updated links.

The move will be accompanied by a modest makeover. But if you can't wait until tomorrow to see the new look, go ahead and take a peek right now.

I'll talk about the reasons for the switch tomorrow.

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Today's last word comes from reader Ray Hamilton who e-mailed me to ask, "If yours is such a sad life, then why is Miss Wilson so desperate to be part of it?"

Maybe she's hoping I'll take her with me the next time I get invited to Helen Mirren's house.

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