The implosion of the Santa Barbara News-Press newsroom 18 months ago sparked a labor battle, which led to the departure of dozens of staffers, the creation of a union, and a swarm of legal actions. Now the story is reaching the big screen, with the March 7th world premiere of Citizen McCaw, a full-length documentary examination of the past year and a half at the local daily and its effect on the community.
For the film’s co-producers–Rod Lathim, Charles Minsky, Peter Seaman and Sam Tyler, all locals–the project has been a time-consuming, pro bono, labor of love.
Asked what made them decide the events at the News-Press would make a good topic for a documentary, Tyler said, “It’s a great story. … You have a newspaper, you have a community, you have the courts, you have national voices, national interests, and they are all involved in this really bizarre and very, very unusual meltdown of a hometown daily paper. … You have a wealthy woman. You have her boyfriend, you have people quitting into an uncertain job market, you have community protesters, and you have judges and lawyers. I mean it’s just a wild, crazy scene, and all of the elements of a really interesting story.”
It was Tyler, the producer of documentaries such as In Search of Excellence and Good to Great, who got the ball rolling.
“He called me up one day and we had coffee and he mentioned it was a shame what was going on with the News-Press and wouldn’t it be great if we made a documentary about it? I could tell he was passionate about it, and it turned out, so was I,” said Minsky, director of photography for films such as Pretty Woman and The Producers. “What has happened to the News-Press hit me hard. I like getting up and reading the paper every morning and we had a very good paper here, before all this happened. So I guess I was a little mad as well, and wanted to find out what everyone else thought about our situation.”
“You can’t write this stuff. … If you made up all this stuff, people would go ‘Oh, c’mon, you’re trying too hard to come up with something,'” said Lathim, a fourth generation Santa Barbara native who founded Access Theatre and spearheaded development of the Marjorie Luke Theatre. “They are writing the story. It’s not our story, although we are a part of it because we live here. … Another reason why we’re doing it is that whether we want to be part of the story or not, we are because we’re Santa Barbara residents. We care about our community. We want to know what the news is and we want to make sure that people are treated fairly and that we can trust our news and get our news in places where it’s trustworthy.”
“Personally, I got angry every time I went to the end of my driveway here in Carpinteria and picked up my News-Press. I’d been doing that every morning for the last 15 years and, like a lot of people in Santa Barbara, got very attached to the paper and its writers. Suddenly everything changed. Where’d Barney Brantingham go? John Zant? Melinda Burns? What the hell happened to the paper I used to know?” said Seaman, writer of films such as Shrek the Third and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. “So that’s where the interest started for me. Plus I knew Sam Tyler and Rod Lathim and Chuck Minsky, and their own interest in doing the film fed mine.”
The story is told in a timeline, started with Thomas Storke and the history of the News-Press, and then on through Wendy McCaw’s reign. “What’s happened here in Santa Barbara is a cautionary tale for comparable issues potentially around the country,” said Tyler. “It hasn’t exploded this way anywhere else, When Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal, ” there wasn’t one-hundredth of the smoke around there that there is here in this inferno around Santa Barbara. They’re comparable issues.”
While the documentarians are clearly passionate about their subject, “we don’t insert ourselves in this film. We never intended to and we didn’t,” said Lathim. “The story is told onscreen by the people involved in the story. Our role in this really is to piece all the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Those pieces include interviews with national leaders in journalism, such as Washington Post Executive editor Ben Bradlee, former NBC News reporter Sander Vanocur, and Harvard’s Alex Jones. The ex-News-Press staffers are represented, as is McCaw, although not willingly.
“She refused half a dozen requests for interviews, had her lawyer send us four nasty letters and subpoenaed our footage,” said Tyler. With that caveat, the filmmakers insist her point-of-view is still represented. “I think she’s probably in it six times herself, her own words in black and white, put fairly up in context representing her point of view,” he said. “She actually appears speaking a couple of times, and her lawyers are in two or three times. So she has at least a dozen presentations of her point of view in this film, directly countering the other. Like Jerry Roberts said, ‘I quit because of ethics,’ Wendy McCaw said, ‘No he didn’t. That’s a lot of bull.’ What goes on here is the same thing that goes on in newsrooms everywhere. I mean viewers make up their own minds.”
Originally published in Noozhawk on March 1, 2008.