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A Labor Day Tribute to Marilyn McMahon -- Talented Journalist, Loyal Colleague, Great Woman

Labor Day seems an apt occasion to celebrate the life well lived of Marilyn McMahon, who died last month at 93, after suffering complications from a bad fall.

Marilyn worked as a feature writer at the Santa Barbara News-Press for nearly half-a-century. Melding craft, industry and caring, she wove a tapestry of words, via some 6,000 published pieces, that told the over-arching story of her community and the people, ordinary and exceptional, who made it singularly special.

As a journalist, Marilyn was a graceful writer and a conscientious reporter who reliably brought curiosity, energy, and solicitude to her work. For her, there was no such thing as an insignificant assignment; she was a skilled and self-respecting wordsmith, and she never mailed it in.

In the newsroom she was a supportive and sympathetic colleague and, when bad trouble came to the paper where she spent her entire career, she also was a steadfast and loyal comrade to her coworkers.

On that hot July day in 2006, when the bitter conflict between employees and owner broke into public view, she stood front and center in a trademark straw hat, as the besieged staff emerged from the News-Press Building with duct tape stuck across their mouths to demonstrate their workplace plight. The iconic image shot around the globe as the most vivid symbol of one of the most bitter struggles in American journalism history.

A special salute. The story of the newspaper’s meltdown has been well-told elsewhere* but Marilyn deserves a special salute and appreciation for the unsung hero’s role she played in this sad and deplorable episode of local history.

She began working at the paper in 1975, not long after the historic reign of Thomas M. Storke, and plied her trade throughout the following years of first-rate ownership under the New York Times. She truly cared about it as an institution that served, and helped hold together, her community, and she modeled the belief that each person who worked there had a duty of stewardship, to protect its legacy and longevity.

In the 17 years that followed the famed duct tape demonstration, every single one of those newsroom colleagues was fired, forced out or resigned. Over the years, as the staff got smaller and smaller, as the National Labor Relations Board issued repeated rulings of unfair labor practices, and as the paper declined in circulation and influence, Marilyn kept going to work.

She certainly had the means to quit the forsaken paper, to escape the toxic atmosphere and mean-spiritedness, but she endured, in part to keep faith with her departed colleagues.

Marilyn told friends that she was “Teflon,” an implausible target for union-busting taunts and tactics, because her age, long experience and standing in the community would protect her. And as long as she stayed, the union, which the employees had voted for overwhelmingly, could not definitively be broken.

In the end, she was the last one standing.

As Melinda Burns wrote in her lovely obituary of Marilyn:

"Amid the meltdown, McMahon threw her support behind the newsroom effort to join the Teamsters and fight for a union contract. She was not afraid to represent the Teamsters at the negotiating table (and) would roll into the room in a wheelchair.

“'I don’t care if it’s the f—ing Mineworkers of America, we are going to have a union,'” she said.

...Dozens of reporters and editors quit or were fired under her punitive regime. But Marilyn stayed on, declaring herself to be the face of the resistance in what was left of the newsroom. After 2006, she never got a raise.

When she died on August 24, she had outlasted the paper by five weeks."

Now it can be told. On July 23, Marilyn got her final revenge when she became the original, secret source for the breaking news that the paper had filed for bankruptcy.

Lawyers for the owners had quietly and cowardly filed the documents with the Bankruptcy Court the day before. This motif, by which the wealthy, governments and corporations seek to lowball bad news, burying it at the start of the weekend, is so commonplace that it has its own locution in newsrooms across the nation: It's called The Friday Night News Dump.

It was not until the next day that Marilyn and the paper's handful of other employees were sent a short and shameful email that served as their first and only notice that the paper was officially out of business,– and that the wages they had earned in the previous pay period would not be forthcoming, at least outside of future bankruptcy finagling.

Determined to thwart the stealthy effort to shroud the news, Marilyn soon delivered a copy of the offending email to a gossip-sodden local talk show host (we name no names), ensuring it would swiftly be forwarded to local reporters – and beyond.

It didn’t take long for Noozhawk scoop artist Josh Molina, followed by the Independent’s Jean Yamamura and KEYT’s Tracy Lehrer to blast out the sad but important news – with the LA Times, and the Washington Post. and others weighing in soon after.

Thank you Marilyn, and Godspeed.


* What may be the last-ever, big screen, public showing of "Citizen McCaw," the 2008 documentary that chronicles the meltdown of Santa Barbara's historic daily newspaper, will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at the Marjorie Luke Theatre at 7 p.m.

Tickets are free, A panel discussion on "The Future of Local News" will follow the film

RSVP below to free showing of "Citizen McCaw" and discussion on September 27, at 7 p.m. at the Marjorie Luke Theater. Click here to learn more.

Images: Marilyn on a 2020 Zoom call; Marilyn in her trademark straw hat stands front and center at the July 2006 Duct Tape Demonstration (Santa Barbara Independent); Poster for Sept. 27 showing of "Citizen McCaw" (Rod Lathim).

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