The battle for De La Guerra Plaza, home to the Santa Barbara News-Press, drew over 200 community members yesterday for the largest protest against the newspaper in months.

Former News-Press employees and their advocates met at noon and rallied for an hour and a half yesterday while listening to guest speakers rail against the current condition of the paper as well as the future of news in Santa Barbara.

“Today’s rally was very satisfying; we had a lot of fantastic speakers,” organizer David Pritchett said. “We had a lot of heartfelt speeches.”

Pritchett said the rally was a sign of solidarity with the recently fired employees, and a less than friendly message to the paper’s owner, Wendy McCaw.

McCaw has been accused of meddling in newsroom decisions and thereby harming the newspaper’s integrity. Speakers said that such behavior does not belong at a newspaper.

“A newspaper isn’t like any other business,” fired News-Press employee Dawn Hobbs said. “It’s a public trust.”

Two weeks ago, six newsroom employees including Hobbs were fired for “engaging in disloyal conduct,” according to a letter to the employees from News-Press associate editor Scott Steepleton.

A few days earlier, the employees had hung a sign that read “Cancel Your Newspaper Today!” directly above Highway 101 on the Anapamu Street footbridge. The newspaper and its employees are currently in dispute over whether the newsroom’s recently formed union is legitimate.

Since several newsroom editors and columnist Barney Brantingham quit in protest last July, the paper has lost nearly 40 newsroom employees to firing or resignation. Protestors said McCaw is waging a “war” against all current and former employees who do not agree with her.

“I call on McCaw and former employees to find a solution,” local hot dog merchant and concerned sports fan Bill Connell said. “It doesn’t have to be a war, Wendy.”

Speakers also said that the city’s sports fans have become the newest group to join the protest, since seasoned sports writer John Zant was fired weeks ago. A 38-year veteran of the News-Press, Zant has been repeatedly praised for his dedication and loyalty to his work. The outrage over his termination helped organizers draw more citizens to the protest, speakers said.

“Local sports is a very unifying force,” Kathleen Rodriguez, Zant’s wife, said. “Sports are the center of any community.”

According to Rodriguez, some of the most distraught readers are UCSB women’s basketball fans – a local sport Zant helped champion. At a recent game Zant attended after his firing, fans held a sign that said “We [heart] John Zant”.

“I was always told I’d be late for my own funeral,” Zant said. “But after reading all the tributes written about me, I feel like I’m early.”

Protesters also used the rally to kick off a new campaign named “Operation Cold Shoulder.” The campaign is a 10-point plan designed by protesters to give the New-Press a “time-out” for its “temper tantrum,” according to one flyer. The plan calls on the public to pull their subscriptions and advertisements, and not to contribute to the paper until order is restored.