Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Biggest Loser

That's not only the name of a popular reality TV show on NBC, it also describes the state of our own local paper, the Santa Barbara News-Press.

According to an article that was posted at Editor & Publisher, daily circulation at the Santa Barbara News-Press plunged 14.1% to 33,755 for the six-month period ending September 2007. Sunday circulation plummeted 14.8%. That is one of the newspaper industry's biggest drops.

Across the industry, there has been a 2.6 percent decline in paid weekday circulation from the year-earlier period and a 3.5 percent drop on Sundays for more than 600 newspapers, according to a story in the New York Times.

Sounds to me like you'd be hard pressed to find a newspaper that's losing readers faster than the News-Press.

Without a doubt, if you asked owner Wendy McCaw (not that she's taking calls) why the the paper's circulation numbers are heading south faster than General Lee's army after the Battle of Gettysburg, she would quickly run out of fingers to point. Her list would start with former executive editor Jerry Roberts and she wouldn't finish until she got to the homeless guy panhandling at the bottom of the freeway off-ramp. She would paint a picture of a vast wing nut conspiracy mostly comprised of local politicians, developers and "rival media."

But I guarantee you she wouldn't name the real culprit, which would be herself.

The fact that the newspaper is shedding readers faster than college students on spring break shed their inhibitions is hardly a surprise.

As we're all aware, scores and scores of employees have left the paper in the past year. Pretty much anybody who didn't jump ship was thrown overboard by McCaw, or worse yet, forced to walk the plank.

The result is that there are very few professionals running the paper. Consider this, in the past 18 months McCaw has chased off the publisher, the executive editor, the managing editors, the city editors, most of the reporters, a good portion of the copy desk (ditto with the columnists) the chief financial officer, the classified advertising manager and I apologize if I've left out anyone who was shown the door or found the way to it on their own.

And who has replaced all of these people? In many cases nobody. And too often when people have been replaced it's been by rank amateurs. And you need look no further than the publisher's suite for an example of what I'm referring to.

Circulation has plummeted because McCaw and her co-publisher, boyfriend Arthur von Wiesenberger, don't know the newspaper business and have turned a deaf ear to what the community really wants from its newspaper. It's no longer a general interest paper but rather one that appeals to a very small demographic. That would be your 50-something, childless, vegan, divorced, former billionaires.

And the circulation figures reflect it.

* * *

There was quite a contingent of Santa Barbarans on hand at the Beverly Hills Hotel Tuesday night to see Jerry Roberts receive the PEN Society's First Amendment Award.

In the large audience for the ceremony that honored a number of writers and journalists including Roberts were Santa Barbara area residents; Don and Kathleen Scott, Mercedes Eicholz, Sara Miller McCune, Anne Towbes, Kathlene Bonnigson, Daily Sound editor and publisher Jeramy Gordon, Annie Bardach (who is a PEN USA board member) and her husband Robert Lesser.

A number of former News-Press reporters and editors were on hand as well including Melinda Burns, Dawn Hobbs, Barney Brantingham, with wife Sue De Lapa, Michael Todd and Scott Hadly. Melissa Evans, who now lives in the L.A. area and writes for the South Coast Daily Breeze was also at the dinner.

Making the presentation to Jerry was film director Taylor Hackford, who grew up in Santa Barbara and once worked for the News-Press as a paper delivery boy.

In introducing Jerry, Hackford told the packed ballroom about the events that are all too familiar to those of us who live in Santa Barbara and also made the point that Roberts' decision to stand up to McCaw has been costly in every way, to his career, his health and his wallet.

When Roberts took the podium to accept the award he made it clear that he was accepting on behalf of all of the journalists who had worked with him at the News-Press and indeed, while he spoke, a slide listing all of those who had left the paper since last July was projected onto the screen to the left of the podium. (My thanks to Kathleen Scott for the photos.)

PEN Center USA works to defend the rights of writers nationally and internationally. In the battle for principled journalism, Jerry Roberts and all of those who were honored in Beverly Hills on Tuesday night were the biggest winners.

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