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Don't Bank on It: Former 'Coast Weekly' news editor Mark Worth claims advertiser pressure, not job performance, got him fired.


Monterey Whinery

Last week's firing of Mark Worth, news editor at Monterey County's alternative paper Coast Weekly, appears to have resulted from growing friction between Worth and the paper's publisher, Bradley Zeve. But the decision to ax Worth one day after complaints from First National Bank of Central California has given life to the fired newshound's charge that his bosses were sucking up to an advertiser.

In the paper's Feb. 24 issue, Worth published a 300-word news brief about First National Bank, whose ad campaign stresses its local roots, and its recent merger with a Santa Barbara bank. The following Monday, according to Worth, Zeve took Worth to task for not seeking comment from bank president Clay Larson. Two days later, Worth says, Zeve told him the paper would run a "clarification." Zeve would not comment on the incident, saying it was a personnel matter.

The clarification did not describe a factual error but, as a matter of tone, attempted to stress that bank decisions are made locally, regardless of where its parent company is headquartered.

Worth says that on Wednesday afternoon, as the paper was being put to bed, Coast Weekly Vice President Erik Cushman told him that in the future he would have to be more fair or else Worth "would have to leave." Worth says Cushman also called him a "loose cannon."

Since there was nothing factually wrong with his story, Worth contends that "the proper response would have been to invite Larson to write a letter to the editor.

"I felt the paper was being overly responsive to criticism because the person who complained loudly was an advertiser and was also the newspaper's bank."

Over a five-month period between last September and February, First National ran quarter- or half-page ads every other week. At rate-card rates, that's about $13,000 a year.

After the meeting with Cushman, Worth says, he called Larson with questions about the bank and its holding company. The conversation grew contentious, and Worth claims that at one point Larson threatened to pull his ads. Larson, who declined to comment for this story, then asked to speak to Zeve.

The next day, as the March 2 issue with the correction was hitting the streets, Zeve and Cushman called Worth in and fired him.

Asked if Larson had put pressure on the paper, Cushman replied that "that doesn't have anything to do with Worth's firing," then declined to comment further.

Worth's aggressive reporting had gotten him into trouble before during his six months with the paper. Last January Worth published a story that misidentified the race of a police sergeant involved in a May 1998 shooting in the nearby town of Seaside. Worth wrote a correction and an apology to the officer. There were other stories, including a piece about a canceled homeless hygiene program at Monterey Peninsula College that caused friction.

"I was hired to do investigative reporting," Worth explains. "So off I went. I didn't know that the paper was so sensitive to public criticism from its friends.

"I think that Coast Weekly is trying to be two things: an alternative paper challenging the status quo, but it's also trying to be a community paper--like trying to be the Bay Guardian and the Monterey County Herald at the same time. I don't think you can do both."

Zeve, a former Santa Cruz newspaperman, calls the suggestion that advertising concerns influenced editorial actions "completely ridiculous."

"I get complaints from advertisers often. We piss them off all the time. And we will do it again in the future."

Recycle This

This week's News & Views story about the conversion of Fort Ord to civilian use has at least one noteworthy spinoff. The former Army base may become the test site for a new contraption that converts lead paint, PCBs and asbestos into recyclable material.

Asbestos Recycling Inc. in Kent, Wash., has produced a prototype, in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency, that converts the toxins into inert material for paving roads. Most of the base's 7,000 old buildings have tile, plus window and door frames, containing asbestos. Most of the paint is lead-based.

The machine will cost about $2 million, plus another $3 million for a test project. Finishing the whole job could run as high as $50 million to $60 million.

Bus and Battle Lines

There's a lot riding on a small waterway through a 20-acre empty lot on Delaware Avenue next to the Lipton Tea Co. plant--about 150 buses to be exact.

On March 14, the Santa Cruz City Council will vote on whether to move the stream--or drainage ditch, depending on who's talking--to accommodate a $39 million facility that would consolidate seven bus maintenance and parking facilities. If the council votes down the project, the Metro Transit District bus center will be dead in its tracks.

"If the ditch is not relocated, we would not be interested in the site any further," says Metro Transit GM Les White. Officials say the Lipton-owned lot--sans-waterway--is the only space big enough.

The Zoning Board voted unanimously last month not to move the waterway.

"All indications are that some sort of centralized Metro base is necessary," Mayor Keith Sugar says. "On the other hand, I think that the way the environmental analysis is being handled is problematic."

SCRAM (Santa Cruz Residents Against MetroBase) members are lobbying hard to keep the project out of the neighborhood.

"Nobody is anti-bus here," says Robert Blitzer. "But ... this project is a beast that is basically going to terrorize the neighborhood."

To kill the beast, the neighbors are fighting to save the stream. They have petitioned the City Council to deny Lipton's application and ask for a full environmental impact report.

A city ordinance prohibits development within 100 feet of a stream. According to previous EIRs, however, the channel is a ditch, not a stream. The waterway doesn't support riparian life and therefore does not require any special protection. But Westside neighbors counter that the reason for this is that Lipton employees have been spraying the channel with herbicide.

"Lipton has systematically poisoned this stream for the past 30 years," says ex-Zoning Board member Mark Primack.

Lipton spokesman John Gould would not comment on the ditch-or-stream dilemma, saying only, "That needs to be discussed at the hearing."

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From the March 8-15, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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