A paper blows up its public trust | VailDaily.com

A paper blows up its public trust

Don Rogers

The Santa Barbara News-Press is busy proving that individual ownership has its perils, too.Earlier this month, nine journalists, including their top editors and staff columnist of the past half-century walked out in a row with the paper’s owner. The owner, Wendy McCaw, a wealthy divorcee with no experience with journalism or newspapers until she bought one, vacationed in Europe while the fire burned at home. A female Nero.The peak, or nadir, came with community protests July 15 and 18 in front of the paper’s offices downtown complete with politicians, hundreds of protesters and current staffers with duct tape over their mouths July 15 so they wouldn’t break edicts not to speak.Most telling was the news coverage of the protest. Or lack thereof in the News-Press. The town’s alternative, The Independent, was only too happy to fill in the gaps of the News-Press soap opera. And of course the big regional paper, The Los Angeles Times, jumped on the story. It is a good story, after all.It’s also a fable, complete with crucial morals for journalism.That much-maligned mainstream press really does have a public trust to uphold. The journalists who left great jobs in a great place understand that clearly. Walking out like they did is as great a sacrifice to an ideal you can make short of getting yourself killed. And yes, vets, I understand that sacrificing a job comes well short of putting your ability to breathe on the line. Still, it is something. These journalists demonstrated that nobility yet reigns in my profession. I’m proud of them. And I’m glad I don’t have their choice here at my workplace, holding the best job in journalism, all considered.The details no doubt belie some personal dramas, but they are damning on their own. Stories killed. Coverage policies defined by whim after the fact, apparently to justify punishment. A vitriolic editorial page editor gaining control of the news side as acting publisher and inflicting his personal views upon news stories. A key part of this tale is a story about his sentencing for drunken driving being killed.So all the top editors, some writers and the legend of a columnist walked out. What else could they do and keep their personal integrity?Under amateur direction at the top, Santa Barbara’s daily blew up. But this tension between the business and the journalism sides simmers across the profession. It takes a strong publisher indeed to run a paper with unflinching journalism. If a straight-ahead newsroom delivers more compelling material, which does attract more readers and better serves its community over the long haul, that can be hard to see in the short run when advertisers and other vested interests object.Not every paper fails the test so flamboyantly as the News-Press did. But make no mistake, we’re all tested pretty much daily.At least the chains, public as well as the privately owned Swift Communications that owns the Vail Daily, employ professionals in the crucial publisher positions. I’ve had my arguments with mine over the years, to be sure. But these are framed in the context of journalism and readers rather than rank business or personal interests. That’s not to say I win them all, either. But one of the hallmark values of my company is integrity and the strength of character to fight even superiors over what’s right. So I take speaking up as a personal responsibility to my company as well as our readers. That will get you fired on the spot in Santa Barbara today.You tell me who has the better handle on this precious, fragile public trust.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 748-2920, or editor@vaildaily.com Vail, Colorado

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