The Santa Barbara News-Press became the center of local media attention once again this past week, after owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw took the stand to defend herself against alleged union violations.
Hundreds of media members and Santa Barbara residents arrived at the courthouse on Tuesday to hear McCaw’s long-awaited testimony in the National Labor Relations Board trial. McCaw and her company, Ampersand Publishing LLC, is currently on trial for 15 counts of allegedly unfair labor practices, including the firing of eight reporters who plaintiffs claim were involved in union-sanctioned activities. Although the trial concluded on Thursday, a verdict from presiding judge William Kocol is not expected for several weeks.
During questioning from her attorney, Barry Cappello, McCaw testified that two employees were terminated because they allegedly practiced biased journalism and that six others were dismissed for allegedly displaying disloyalty to the newspaper. She said none of the eight reporters were fired for partaking in union activities.
McCaw also said she witnessed allegedly biased reporting at the News-Press, particularly in articles concerning the environment. She cited one article written in 2003 regarding the removal of coyotes from Hope Ranch and said it was generally “anti-coyote.”
McCaw, who bought the News-Press from the New York Times in 2000 and became co-publisher with fiancée Arthur von Wiesenberger in 2006, said in her testimony that she began to notice biased reporting as early as 2000 and worried that it would hurt the paper’s credibility.
Meanwhile, the eight former reporters involved allege that McCaw made the newspaper more biased by continually interfering with news articles and editorial policies, including one incident in which she allegedly reprimanded staff for printing the address of an empty lot where actor Rob Lowe was planning to build a mansion. Another frequently cited incident involved McCaw’s alleged decision to cancel a news story about News-Press Opinion Editor Travis Armstrong, in which he received a drunk driving conviction.
In July 2006, tensions between the owner and staff of the News-Press garnered national attention when several top editors quit, alleging that McCaw meddled with news coverage.
Later that month, McCaw ran an editorial on the front page of the News-Press saying the editors allegedly quit because they were no longer allowed to state their personal opinions in news stories.
In Fall 2006, several News-Press employees voted to form a union in order to regulate wages and working conditions.
After two employees were fired in January, others in the newsroom banded together to protest what allegedly unfair terminations. A group of six employees hung a banner that read “Cancel Your Newspaper Today!” directly over Highway 101 downtown. The six protesters were subsequently fired.
During court sessions, NLRB lawyer Brian Gee repeatedly claimed the newspaper owners commenced with unfair business practices soon after the union was formed. The plaintiffs are currently demanding backpay and reinstatement.