Thursday, March 04, 2010

In Santa Ynez, She Was Home On The Strange

Imagine that your boss takes you out for a drink, tells you that she really likes the job that you're doing and then a mere three and a half weeks later fires you.

That's what happened to Barbara Lanz-Mateo, who up until January 19th of this year had been the managing editor of the Santa Ynez Valley Journal.

Then again, maybe that's not all that surprising considering the fact that Lanz-Mateo was the Valley Journal's fourth editor in four years. Throw in the fact that her boss, the owner of the Valley Journal, is the mercurial Nancy Crawford Hall.

Hall, who bought the paper four years ago from Jim Buckley (the owner of the Montecito Journal) is reputed to be the largest land owner in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Her ownership of the Valley Journal, a weekly which touts itself as "the official newspaper of the Santa Ynez Valley," appears to be another case of a wealthy individual who buys a newspaper despite the fact that she has zero experience in journalism. Sound familiar? (This is where you, the reader, spontaneously exclaims, "Wendy McCaw!")

When Lanz-Mateo was hired to be the managing editor of the Valley Journal back in October 2008, she had no idea what she was getting into. She had just closed her own business, Coastal Woman Magazine, when out of the blue she got a call from the Valley Journal and was asked her to come up and interview for the editor's position. She did and they offered her the job on the spot. She accepted it despite the fact that she didn't know anything about the paper or the owner.

Lanz-Mateo explained to me during a phone conversation that taking the job in the Santa Ynez Valley, which she also didn't have much familiarity with, felt like a self-imposed exile. One that she was more than willing to impose on herself. She had felt like a failure here in Santa Barbara and she felt she could go up to the Santa Ynez Valley and lick her wounds.

At the beginning of Lanz-Mateo's tenure as managing editor, where she oversaw a staff of four writers and a graphic designer, Hall seemed to be very much hands off when it came to the newsroom. However, when Lanz-Mateo put then county supervisor elect Doreen Farr on the cover of the weekly paper, Hall got mad. Lanz-Mateo defended the decision by pointing out that Farr had won the election and that justified putting her on the cover. Hall would later bankroll an unsuccessful court challenge to the outcome of the election by Farr's opponent Steve Pappas.

Despite the initial hands off approach, Hall seemed to become bolder and bolder as time went on. For example, if someone who was coming to town who had philosophies or points of view didn't agree with Hall's, Hall would instruct the staff that they were not to put it into the paper.

Despite incidents like this, Hall would insist that she wanted a "balanced" paper. But, according to Lanz-Mateo, whenever they tried to make the paper balanced, Hall got mad.

Hall would later explain to her that the Santa Ynez Valley Journal was the "balance" against all the other "liberal" media.

Lanz-Mateo would eventually form the opinion that Hall had no regard for her readers and didn't trust them to make up their own minds. Nor, in her opinion, did Hall have any respect for the process of journalism.

"I think in her heart she means well," Lanz-Mateo said, "but her good intentions are so overshadowed by her political beliefs. It's not global warming it's about global cooling. The south coast is trying to tell the Valley what to do," are some of the examples she gave of where Hall is coming from. "She is so sure that people are out to destroy her way of living that she can't see the good in anybody."

During the approximately 15 months she worked there, Lanz-Mateo didn't get any feedback regarding her work. She never heard "good job" or "bad job." In fact, she felt completely ignored.

It was "incredibly stressful," according to Lanz-Mateo. Hall was seldom in the office instead tending to her cattle ranch, cow breeding facility and her horses.

Nevertheless, Lanz-Mateo tried to keep Hall up on what was going on including forwarding a copy of every letter to the editor she received to her.

Because Lanz-Mateo was going to be unable to attend the office holiday party, Hall took her out for a drink this past Christmas time and told her she really liked the job she was doing, and noted that the paper was running more smoothly than it ever has.

One Tuesday morning, less than a month after that holiday drink, Hall came into the office. Lanz-Mateo and her staff were in the process of laying out the paper which goes to the printer every Wednesday afternoon. As usual, Hall didn't say hello to anyone. Around 11 am Lanz-Mateo's phone rang. She answered it and it was Hall on the other end of the line, asking her to come into her office. It was then that she fired her with the explanation that, "You're not fulfilling the mission of the paper and well, you know, (it's) these economic times."

The fact that she would fire Lanz-Mateo during the layout process and not wait until 24 hours later when the paper had been put to bed, is an indication how clueless Hall was about the process of getting the paper produced. And no, the paper did not get out on time that week.

Lanz-Mateo was replaced as editor by the paper's sports writer. And the sports writer position has not been filled. As for the future prospects of the paper Lanz-Mateo told me, "She has good people working up there now. Some smart reporters who can do a good job if they're allowed to."

But will they be allowed to? Lanz-Mateo lamented what has become an ownership trend among small papers. "Now it's just people who have a lot of money who get to push their own agenda."

That certainly seems to be true, whether it's in De la Guerra Plaza or a ten-gallon hat's toss from the Hitching Post, it's the owner's way, or the highway.

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