A real estate developer and former billboard company owner, David Weyrich launched the Gazette papers in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, Five Cities and Los Osos starting in July. But it was not until a calendar announcement for a gay support group was pulled around Valentine's Day that the staffs learned of the papers' policy: Nothing that portrays homosexuality or abortion in a positive light will be published. "This issue of traditional family values has more to do with integrity than journalistic ethics," Weyrich and his wife and co-owner Mary wrote in the papers.
Those who left disagree. "Mr. Weyrich allowed his religious beliefs to cloud journalistic ethics, in my opinion," says Pat Veesart, executive director of the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County and a former biweekly columnist for the chain.
The calendar announcement, for a meeting of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, had run regularly since November 25 in the Atascadero Gazette. In February, Publisher Steve Martin and Editor Ron Bast received word from the Gazette Newspaper Group's chief operating officer, Todd Hansen, that it had to be pulled. Bast "tried to start a dialogue with the guys on top," the former editor says. Neither Hansen nor Weyrich has a journalism background, and Bast thought, "maybe this whole thing is because these guys just don't understand."
But his efforts went nowhere. Hansen told him, "This is our newspaper, and we're going to do whatever we want," Bast recalls. Without autonomy, the editor decided to walk. He is now weighing his job options and trying to sell a novel he had written. Martin put in his two-week notice.
Hansen says the incident has been more positive than negative for the company. "We feel we're a better paper because of our statement.... And now that we have got the employees out" who don't share those beliefs, the papers are stronger. He says the Gazettes have replaced everyone who quit. Advertisers have dropped out, including the city of San Luis Obispo, but Hansen says others have signed on.
The weeklies, with a total editorial and sales staff of 75, are distributed free to every business, household and post office box in the area. They have a total circulation of almost 127,000. Some residents have asked to be taken off the mailing list, though Hansen says the cancellation rate has been less than 1 percent.
What exactly is the chain's policy on news about gays? Hansen says that if the AIDS quilt came to town, the papers would cover it; if a local businessman was gay, that fact wouldn't stop them from writing about him. The chain would not, however, present the gay lifestyle positively.
But for those who quit in protest, this is not so much a gay rights issue as a matter of journalism ethics.
Kathy Johnston, a writer for the San Luis Obispo and Atascadero papers, as well as the Weyrich-owned San Luis Obispo Magazine, says she resigned when she realized the community papers weren't representing all viewpoints. "I personally would have left if they tried to exclude any part of the community."
An owner of five California free weeklies sees his stance on covering gays and abortion as simply good community newspapering. Many staffers and area residents see it as a breach of ethics--leading at least eight employees, including four contributing writers, and some stringers to quit.