How I Got That Story: Nick Welsh

november 6, 2008  01:23 pm
How I Got That Story: Nick Welsh
Union intimidation, copyright infringement, kiddie porn and a poodle?

No, not a real poodle. Just "The Angry Poodle Barbeque," the name of Nick Welsh's column, which appears in the Santa Barbara Independent. Using the voice of the Poodle, Welsh has locked horns with the News-Press, the reigning daily in Santa Barbara, and its owner, Wendy McCaw. Standing up to the big paper in town hasn't come without consequences; Welsh has found himself in court repeatedly, both as a reporter and a defendant.

When I first saw the logo for your column, I thought it was an ad for a restaurant. What possessed you to name your column "The Angry Poodle Barbeque"?

I inherited it from some other people, and at first, I hated it and wanted to have it killed. But it was collective entity and there was no byline on it because everybody fed it, would write it, etc. That was how it went. But over time, I kind of [took it over]. It was my de facto column; everybody in town knew it was me.

So it seems like in Santa Barbara, the daily paper and the alt-weekly are fighting each other tooth and nail. How'd this get started?

The story really got started when four editors and one reporter [at the News-Press] walked off the job a few years ago. And since we're really the only other game in town, it fell on us to keep updates on it. From time to time, there'd be new developments, and I was constantly being fed by sources at News-Press and people who used to work there. It was a huge rumor mill that qualifies as the cottage industry here dealing with any and all things McCaw and the News-Press.

And what was all this about kiddie porn on the former News-Press editor's computer?

Oh, well this is fucking huge. The News-Press puts on its front page on a Sunday an article all but accusing [former News-Press editor] Jerry Roberts of having downloaded kiddie porn on his computer. So, Roberts held a press conference that day to respond to it. So it was me looking into these allegations, talking to the police, the sheriff, the FBI, saying, OK, they looked into this, and what kind of conclusion did they find?

And what did they find out?

That was the real meat of my story -- finding out from the cops that there was absolutely no fucking way in hell they could find out who downloaded that porn. What was amazing was the low blow to Roberts and the depths that Wendy and News-Press were willing to sink to. You have a few crimes where all you have to do is make an accusation and then you're guilty until proven innocent. This is one of them -- kiddie porn.

McCaw, the News-Press owner, sued you for copyright infringement. What happened?

What happened? I was an idiot, that's what happened!

I'm 52 years old and I'm still getting into the internet reality. We're trying to approximate a daily newspaper as much as possible and there's this incredible pressure to feed the beast. I posted an article Scott Hadley had written up. I attached a link that if you hit it, you could read Hadley's entire article, a PDF, an internal News-Press document. We were sued for trademark copyright infringement and a host of various accusations that we were out to get them and destroy them financially. Technically, we didn't have permission to use that article and when they said take it down, we took it down.

Did you ever think you'd be sued by another newspaper?

It was beyond Alice in Wonderland. It used to be the government saying give us your sources, the police saying give us your sources, but coming from a another paper, it was staggering. It was to make a point that if you talk to Nick Welsh, you have no protection.

The whole point was to scare their employees out of talking. And it worked!

So nobody will talk to you anymore?

It definitely had a chilling effect. I had a source over there who definitely stopped talking to me after that. I won't say everybody stopped talking, but a number of people did.

So what does this mean for Santa Barbara?

People talk about the demise of the daily newspaper and throughout the country people are watching the slow-moving disintegration of the daily paper. Here in Santa Barbara, we have the accelerated version. [McCaw] put her foot on the pedal, floored it, and drove that thing off the cliff. Santa Barbara is a community trying to figure out how to live without a daily paper. At the Independent, we're trying to figure out a way to become a de facto daily with the internet. We're doing OK, but we're still struggling.

Read the stories that garnered Welsh a first-place finish in Media Reporting/Criticism (circulation under 55,000):
"All the News Not Fit to Print"
"That Dog's All Wet"
"The Canine Ultimatum"

Part of the 2008 "How I Got That Story" series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.