The Santa Barbara News-Press: Another U.S. Newspaper Commits Suicide

We hear the talk and read the statistics: Newspapers are dying, circulation is eroding and readers are turning to blogs and mobile media for their news.Greenberg21_1

Then there is Santa Barbara, California. I lived in Santa Barbara for five years and worked in the area as a full-time journalist and later as a consultant to local politicians, including current Mayor Marty Blum. In this breezy coastal town, the newspaper is as much a part of the community as beach volleyball and bar hopping on State Street. This is a place where morning coffee is nothing without the newspaper, where journalists still enjoy a modicum of respect.

But all is not well in what was once journalism paradise. Six top editors and a long-time columnist (community icon Barney Brantingham) left the 151-year-old News-Press last week because of the owner and publisher’s alleged meddling in editorial decisions. The journalists claim owner Wendy McCaw and interim publisher Travis Armstrong (a former editorial writer) censored or killed news stories for personal or other reasons outside the conventions of journalistic integrity.

So at a time of newspaper layoffs, declining profits and growing uncertainty, the journalists walked. Their co-workers yelled epithets at the publisher. Heaven is now hell and no one knows when or how it will end.

The Los Angeles Times called the resignations an “editorial bloodbath.” I prefer to call it suicide, brought on, in part, by many of the same societal and technological shifts that are causing other papers to die more natural deaths.

News is bigger than ever, but journalism has become small
. Reporters and editors with integrity, like those at the News-Press, now take a back seat to business and corporate interests who, in part because of pressures to assuage advertisers and subscribers, are loathe to run “bad” news.

"Brand" is Dead – Can Local News Be Far Behind?
I’ve said that newspapers have lost their brand identities, and that the “brand value” now lies with the individual journalist and not the institution for which he or she works. The News-Press, however, still had a strong brand within the community. It was the main source of local political news and local businesses still relied on the paper for advertising.

But the powers behind the News-Press misjudged their community. People in Santa Barbara want journalism – real journalism. They don’t cancel subscriptions because the paper runs a “negative” story. Advertisers don’t pull their ads because of something Brantingham writes. The paper is a friend at the table, not an enemy at the gate.

"We need a strong daily newspaper," Marshall Rose, executive director of the Downtown Organization, told the Times. "Business relies on the News-Press to provide current events and as a print medium to advertise.”

Added Cathy McGee, a waitress at local hangout Joe’s Café: "It’s sad, because you don’t have enough time to check things out at the City Council yourself," she said. "You depend on the newspaper to tell you that."

What’s really sad is you couldn’t read these or any other quotes in the News-Press. According to News-Press reporters, Armstrong killed a staff written story about the resignations. Instead, Armstrong wrote a “note to our readers” in which he said the newspaper would maintain “both the standards of journalism as well as the standards of this community with respect to personal privacy, fairness and good taste." The only other official comments came from the paper’s public relations person, who is based in San Francisco and had not been to the newsroom to assess the situation in person (for some interesting local perspective, check out the Santa Barbara Independent’s Media Blog.)

Is It Time for Citizen Journalism?
Santa Barbara takes its journalism in full – the good and the bad.

The question now is can it take the ugly, or will it become like other small cities that have little to no local news? Will Santa Barbara turn to the Internet and start a citizen journalism project, or will the once knowledgeable residents become part of the Great Uninformed? Will other media like The Independent fill the gaps, either real or perceived, and how will that affect local news and community culture?

One thing is certain: Santa Barbara now knows firsthand what many of us have experienced for some time. Print is not dead, but newspapers are dying. And it is not just from outside forces like the Internet, but from internal business objectives at odds with covering the news. Newspapers are killing themselves and they are doing it in full public view.

The future of news should be the brightest its ever been, with the ability to publish anytime anywhere, and to engage the public as part of the process. This should be newspapers’ renaissance – instead it is the Dark Ages, and the Santa Barbara News-Press is now one more reminder of just how bleak the journalism profession has become.

4 thoughts on “The Santa Barbara News-Press: Another U.S. Newspaper Commits Suicide

  1. Gary,
    I’ve seen this story evolve (many thanks to Poynter). As a former journalist, this is sad when non-editorial and non-journalist reasons interfere with a newspaper’s core business. (That is, fairly, accurately reporting news and information.)
    However, in our mostly free market, someone or something will step forward and fill any news gap that the SB News-Press may be opening.
    Maybe some VC will come forward and finance the News-Press staff members who have quit so they can start a rival paper??
    Or, as you suggested, someone will organize citizen journalists.
    As for the future of newspapers — focus on local/regional coverage. And, join continuous the 24-hour news cycle by using their Web sites and e-mails and blogs and etc. etc.
    — Mike

  2. David, I agree (and I’m familiar with the Westport example), but only to a point. This only works if the community is connected to the Internet — many people in many small towns don’t have the means to be online, and I become concerned when the only way to access news is via technology and thereby creating a deeper digital divide. Journalism is a public trust, so I hope we find a way to ensure that all sectors of the public, rich and poor, have access to local news.

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