Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Reinstatement Hearing Redux

When it was announced over four weeks ago that the NLRB had decided to go to federal court to seek immediate reinstatement of the eight fired News-Press reporters and that the judge assigned to the case wanted the parties to appear before him a mere three court days after the case was filed to argue the merits of the matter, a lot of people, including myself, were thinking that one way or another, we would have a quick answer on whether the reporters would be going back to work.


Yesterday afternoon the attorneys for each side were back in court in Los Angeles for the second time in as many weeks arguing the matter. This time the judge wanted to hear specifically about whether reinstatement was necessary to avoid "irreparable harm" and whether a reinstatement order would infringe on the First Amendment rights of the paper's owner Wendy McCaw.

From accounts I've heard of the proceedings, the judge's questions and comments didn't give the fired eight a lot to be encouraged about.

Perhaps because he wanted to get a sense of whether the reporters would actually return to work if McCaw was ordered to take them back, Judge Steven Wilson wanted to know what the eight reporters are currently doing job wise. With at least four of the eight working either full-time or part-time and former reporter Barney McManigal off in England studying at Oxford, the judge stated that the NLRB and the Union may need stronger irreparable harm arguments in order to prevail.

Then came the First Amendment issue with the judge wondering whether ordering a newspaper owner to take back reporters might be "an incursion on the managerial prerogative."

The judge summarized his view of the situation as one where "the reporters were saying 'we have the integrity to write the way we want.' I don't think reporters have the right to write the way they want."

Then there was News-Press attorney Barry Cappello's claim that the situation at the paper had changed since the reporters were discharged.

Cappello revealed that with the paper down to three reporters, newsroom personnel are no longer assigned to beats. Instead everyone is considered to be a "general assignment" reporter and gets their assignment for each particular day from associate editor Scott Steepleton.

Cappello also represented to the judge that due to the union's economic boycott against the News-Press the paper has lost more than 10,000 in circulation and that advertising revenue is down as well.

Of course the revelation that the News-Press is losing circulation and ad revenue is about as startling as Captain Renault's discovery that gambling was going on in Rick's Cafe.

Nevertheless, it was surprising that Cappello would admit those facts while on the record in a court of law. After all, the News-Press has always tried to dismiss or minimize the effect of the union's actions on the paper.

In fact, Cappello's statement would appear to contradict what co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger was recently quoted as telling the Santa Barbara Middle School Teen Press when they asked him about the drop in circulation:

Although The News-Press experienced a brief increased decline during a Teamsters campaign to get subscribers to cancel their subscriptions, our numbers are currently in line with national averages.

Assuming, as it was reported at the time, that as of July 2006 the News-Press had a circulation of 41,000 a drop of more than 10,000 would mean a 25 percent decline in circulation since the resignation of former editor Jerry Roberts. Don't know of any other newspapers that are shedding readers at that rapid a rate.

Former reporters Dawn Hobbs and Melinda Burns were in court yesterday to watch the hearing which lasted about an hour. Afterwards Dawn said, "We, of course, remain hopeful the judge will rule in our favor and that we will soon be able to reclaim our rightful jobs."

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge took the case under submission, meaning that he will announce his ruling at a later time.

And no predictions from me as to when that will be.

* * *

Four days after the mayor's "State of the City" address, the News-Press finally ran a story on it.

I guess all those front page articles about homeless pets and wayward macaws made it hard to squeeze this story in.