A little more than two months ago, Don Katich, a former broadcast director at KEYT and onetime realtor, took a job with the Santa Barbara News-Press. He was hired, according to a company announcement, to “be responsible for integrated newsgathering operations for all of the Ampersand media platforms including the Santa Barbara News-Press, newspress.com, radio station KZSB AM 1290, and affiliated community publications.”
On Wednesday, December 3, Katich and the powers-that-be at Ampersand Publishing - the paper’s parent company owned by Wendy McCaw - began that integration with a bang. They eliminated two of the “affiliated community publications” (the Goleta Valley Voice and Valley Living, which covered the Santa Ynez Valley) and laid off 17 workers so that they could better focus on their “core product,” which is the daily News-Press. The cuts produced the expected ire from the laid-off employees and once again fanned the Santa Barbara community’s anti-News-Press flames, which have been burning since disputes between McCaw and the daily’s newsroom led to an employee exodus in July 2006. That in turn led to a successful unionization drive, allegedly illegal firings of union leaders, and federal charges that the newspaper’s owners violated labor law; the union is still negotiating with the owners over a contract and the federal court cases are in various stages of litigation.
But Katich does not agree, as some of the laid-off employees have suggested, that the internationally reported News-Press controversy has affected the sales force’s ability to sell advertising. Instead, Katich explained, “I agree with the thought that it’s harder to sell advertising now, not because of the turmoil [suggested by laid-off Voice editor Jim Logan], but because of the state of advertising and the economy.” Katich pointed to the Ventura County Star‘s recent cuts and the mass lay-offs by the Gannett newspaper group as evidence of the industry downturn.
Katich did admit, however, that it “doesn’t help having out-of-town protesters in front of our advertisers encouraging Santa Barbara not to visit those businesses that deem it necessary and appropriate to advertise in the local newspaper.” He was referring to the Teamsters union representatives who have been picketing at various businesses over the past year; they are calling for boycotts of News-Press advertisers as a means of supporting the unionized newsroom. The 2006 unionization drive was successful and approved by the government, but it’s still stalled indefinitely in the negotiations phase.
The cutbacks were an attempt, said Katich, to make the daily newspaper better. “Given the current economic situation that is affecting all media here in Santa Barbara - and I’d group The Independent in this category, it’s challenging for all of us - we felt that we needed to focus all of our efforts onto our core business,” said Katich. “On top of that, if we can make our core product more relevant in the eyes of our consumer by providing topical news of Goleta and Santa Ynez in the daily paper, that has more value than [delivering it] on a weekly basis.”
When it was pointed out that the News-Press once did cover Goleta extensively as well as publish the Valley Voice every week, Katich declined to comment because he was not around when the weekly paper was purchased in 2006 and does not know how newsgathering operations were divided then. “I wasn’t here when that occurred,” he said, “and it would just be a guess on my part.” Katich did explain, however, “We wish to cover Goleta in a more prominent manner in our daily newspaper.”
When asked about how many reporters remain in the newsroom, Katich said he would have to call back with an exact number, because the News-Press newsroom has become somewhat amorphous, and there are no longer strictly reporters. “We all wear different hats,” said Katich. “We don’t necessarily have people who just report, or have people who just do copy, or who just do management, because we all kind of jump in and do what is necessary depending on who is working that day and what stories develop : It’s a tough question to answer in today’s digital world. In the past, 20 years ago, [newsroom roles] were much more defined.”
So are there more cuts to come, or is this the last round? “That’s a question I won’t be able to answer,” said Katich. He added, “I’m a firm believer that there’s plenty of room at the news table for all of us here in Santa Barbara. But during these hard economic times, the table is a little smaller. The best thing all media can do is stay in business to serve the community and continue to gainfully employee people who live here in Santa Barbara and on the South Coast. That is certainly our expectation and our objective.”