Some Thoughts on the Passing of the News-Press

By Lou Cannon   |   August 15, 2023

When the Brooklyn Eagle, a circulation leader among afternoon papers, closed its doors in 1955 after 114 years of publication, few tears were shed outside of Brooklyn.

The Eagle was not much of a newspaper, observed press critic A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker. Nonetheless, he continued, the death of the Eagle was an occasion to mourn rather than celebrate, for there was always a chance it would become a good paper someday.

Losing the Santa Barbara News-Press is even sadder because the paper has a rich history. In the wake of a declaration of bankruptcy by publisher Wendy McCaw, media historians remembered that the paper had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962 when publisher Thomas Storke took home the honor for his editorials about the John Birch Society.

Storke’s commentary was backed up by first-rate reporting about how the Birch Society was undermining the civic life of Santa Barbara. The News-Press was then a family affair with Storke’s father running the editorial page and his son the daily operations. 

Under the Storkes, the News-Press was also involved in mundane controversies. A co-worker of mine at the San Jose Mercury knew the family and said Thomas Storke was inordinately proud of keeping parking meters out of the city. Storke reportedly called them the “work of the devil.” 

Local newspapers often become editorially involved in such civic controversies, as I know from experience. Before having the good fortune to work 28 years for The Washington Post, I spent most of two decades at weeklies and a twice-a-week newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area and at dailies in Merced and San Jose.

Routine work was punctuated by edifying moments. At the Merced Sun-Star I discovered that a county supervisor was circumventing the law requiring construction and repairs on public buildings above a certain amount to be put to bid. The supervisor had work broken down into multiple “cost-plus” repairs that did not require bidding and funneled the contracts to a relative who owned an electrical business. Other supervisors turned a blind eye to what was happening.

My publisher, a conservative Republican, liked my stories, but they didn’t seem to be producing results. So the publisher conferred with my editor, and the two of them concocted a plan. They had a reporter interview a former county counsel about the mechanics of filing a taxpayers’ suit against the supervisors and put the story on page one.

This was in the nineteen-fifties, a less litigious time, and such relatively mild pressure was sufficient. The supervisors rescinded pending cost-plus contracts, one for construction of a hospital. The subsequent new bids saved Merced County thousands of dollars.

My stories didn’t always have such happy endings. At the San Jose Mercury a decade later, the publisher suppressed a series written by me and the political editor about a Republican state senator who had, among other things, accepted bribes for advancing legislation.

This publisher, also a conservative Republican, did not explain the reason for his action, but a friend of his told us he didn’t want to help the Democrats in a swing district.

Years later, I interviewed Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, for a book I was doing on reporting. When I complimented her for publishing the Pentagon Papers and sticking with the Watergate investigation until it bore fruit, she responded: “What else could I have done?”

I said that every publisher wasn’t like her and as an example told her the story of how our series had been suppressed. 

“That was scurrilous,” she said. “It’s a wonder you stayed with journalism.”

She touched a nerve. I had considered quitting after our series was spiked, but had a young and growing family, and journalism was all I knew. So I soldiered on and had the good fortune to be hired by Graham’s paper when nearly 40 years old. 

I spent the rest of my daily journalism career covering politics, three presidencies, and the West for The Washington Post. Journalistically, they were the best years of my life.

My wife Mary and I have been additionally fortunate to live in Summerland for the past 33 years. We fell in love with the Central Coast during the eight years of the Ronald Reagan presidency when I was the Post’s senior White House correspondent. Reagan escaped the confines of the White House whenever he could to fly west and ride at his nearby ranch.

At the time I wrote a column that had begun in the Post as “Reagan & Company” and was syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group. The News-Press ran the column.

The News-Press was then owned by The New York Times, which meant it was generally high-minded. But I was aware that some Santa Barbarans thought the paper had become remote from its readers and was not alarmed when it was sold in 2000 to Wendy McCaw. I cheered when she hired as editor Jerry Roberts, whom I knew as one of the most trusted and reliable political reporters in California.

How little any of us know about the future.

The cheering stopped as McCaw, instead of tackling the challenging issues that face Santa Barbara, battled her newsroom on the appropriate role of a newspaper. The conflict came to a head in July 2006 when Roberts and four other newsroom employees resigned in protest to two McCaw decisions they believed violated journalistic integrity.

Since then, and particularly recently, the News-Press has operated with a skeleton staff too small to cover the news even if McCaw wanted to do so.

As Gwyn Lurie has shown in these pages, quoting the experienced journalist and activist Annie Bardach, McCaw’s withdrawal from serious news coverage has come at great cost to the community.

Since California legalized marijuana, cannabis growers have rooted themselves in Santa Barbara County, supplanting a well-established (and harmless) flower-growing industry in Carpinteria and environs.

The cannabis growers were aided by excessively friendly legislation passed by the county board of supervisors that allowed growers to determine their own taxes. According to Bardach and a Los Angeles Times story, the supervisor who wrote the legislation received significant campaign contributions from the cannabis industry.

I’m retired now, but this is a story I would love to have covered when a California journalist. Who knows? Done right, under the direction of Jerry Roberts or another capable editor, it’s the sort of story, replete with heroes and villains, that might have earned a fully staffed Santa Barbara News-Press a second Pulitzer Prize.  


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