California Newspaper Publisher Sues Journalist for Defamation

The company that publishes the Santa Barbara News-Press has sued a reporter, claiming that a story she wrote in the American Journalism Review defamed the newspaper in a "biased, false and misleading diatribe."

Ampersand Publishing LLC's lawsuit accuses Susan Paterno of libel and product disparagement and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Paterno, 48, declined to comment Monday but her attorney, Howard King, said the lawsuit was without merit and that he believes its intended effect was to frighten other reporters who want to write about the News-Press.

"It's to let any reporter know that if you exercise your constitutional rights, it will cost you money, time and put them through turmoil," he said.

King noted that AJR was not named as a defendant, and said that numerous editors and an outside law firm vetted the story.

The article, which appears in AJR's December 2006-January 2007 issue under the title "Santa Barbara Smackdown," focused on the turmoil at the newspaper following the departure since July of nearly every top editor and several other employees.

Paterno, who has written for AJR about 10 years, talked with former staffers, some of whom accused News-Press owner and publisher Wendy McCaw of meddling in the newsroom.

Paterno delved into two incidents some former employees believe compromised journalistic ethics -- a story was killed concerning the drunken-driving sentencing of editorial page editor Travis Armstrong, and staff were reprimanded for publishing the address where actor Rob Lowe wants to build a mansion.

AJR's article "is nothing but a biased, false and misleading diatribe against plaintiff," said the lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 12 in Orange County Superior Court. "Clearly neither accuracy nor objectivity was high on defendant's list of priorities."

The lawsuit claims Paterno on numerous occasions omitted facts and made false and misleading statements.

AJR Editor and Senior Vice President Rem Reider told The Associated Press the article was carefully reported and News-Press management had "ample" opportunity to respond to questions but refused. The magazine is published by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

A phone message left for Ampersand's attorney was not immediately returned Monday.

The News-Press is a 41,000-circulation daily.