PASO ROBLES — David and Mary Weyrich were classmates at Villanova Preparatory High School in Ojai and married a few years later. Standing before friends, family and five priests, they vowed to love each other in good times and bad.
The past two weeks have provided some of both.
Instead of being revered for their business savvy and cast in bronze for their gifts to church and charity, the owners of the newly formed Gazette newspaper chain are being held up as a symbol of prejudice and intolerance.
More than a dozen employees have quit, two dozen advertisers have dropped out and 500 people have asked not to receive the paper after learning the Weyrichs won't publish news they feel promotes abortion or homosexuality.
The story has been carried in the Los Angeles Times, on National Public Radio and on journalism school web sites.
Tuesday an entire family trooped to the San Luis Obispo City Council meeting to urge their elected leaders to stop writing for the paper. A couple days later the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council weighed in with a letter saying they are "deeply concerned" by the Weyrichs' policy. And last week the Performing Arts Center reversed course and decided against having its quarterly events calendar inserted into the Gazettes.
"We just don't want to get caught up in the backwash," said Ron Regier, managing director of the arts center.
But the reaction has been far less critical in the Weyrichs' home town. No one from the Paso Robles Gazette has quit. Cards and emails of support from people in the North County have outnumbered criticism 25-to-1. And two Thursdays ago, Weyrich received an ovation from his Rotary Club.
"Up here north of the Grade, I have not heard anybody say anything but good things about David and Mary," said club president Gary Eberle.
Throughout it all, the Weyrichs have stood firm in their deeply held religious beliefs. "It's not something I can go back and do anything about," David Weyrich said during an interview at his Paso Robles office. He was accompanied by his wife and Todd Hansen, the Gazettes' chief operating officer.
"We treasure human life," said Mary Weyrich. "Every, every person is a gift from God."
"We're very much pro-life," added her husband. "We're simply not going to promote the pro-choice stand."
The same goes for homosexuality, he said. "I guess we're not a 100 percent newspaper. I don't think there is one out there."
Orange County roots
David Blaine Weyrich was born June 27, 1954, in Long Beach and spent part of his childhood in Orange County until his family moved north to Ojai. His father Wayne is a retired real estate broker. His mom Betty worked as a registered nurse and raised three children. Weyrich has a brother living in Arroyo Grande and a sister in Folsom.
Weyrich attended a Catholic grammar school, but in the eighth grade his parents gave him the option of switching to public school. He took it, and his grades shot from B's and C's to straight A's, he said.
His folks were not impressed by the easy curriculum and sent him to Villanova Prep, a Catholic high school in Ojai. He graduated in 1972, the same year as his future wife, then enrolled at Ventura Junior College.
The Weyrichs were married in 1974. The ceremony in Ojai featured five priests, all family friends. "Rather than turn one down, we said, 'Come on,' " Weyrich said.
From there they headed to Montana to attend Carroll College, a small Catholic school in Helena, the state capital. By the time they graduated in 1977 — he with a degree in business and accounting and she with a degree in nursing — they had two small children at home.
Montana held them for three years. David took a job with Northwest Union Trust Co., and Mary went to work at the local Veterans Administration hospital. Then they moved to Paso Robles.
The 1960s and '70s brought tough times for billboard company owners such as Edward Martin.
Lady Bird Johnson considered outdoor advertising a blight on the landscape and pushed her husband to do something about it.
"Association with beauty can enlarge man's imagination and revive his spirit," President Lyndon Johnson told Congress in a 1965 speech that lumped billboards in with strip mining. "Ugliness can demean the people who live among it."
By 1980, when Martin was ready to retire, the business was struggling.
The future of the company had been an occasional topic of conversion between Martin's son Tom, and his brother-in-law David Weyrich. Out of those holiday conversations came the decision to see if they couldn't build on Edward Martin's company.
Tom Martin, who declined to be interviewed for this story, wanted out of southern California and picked Paso Robles as their new base of operations, Weyrich said. The Weyrichs packed up their young family and headed west to join him.
Working out of three adjacent Victorian homes on Vine Street, they created the fifth largest billboard company in the United States "simply by reinvesting our profits and putting our heart and soul into the business," Weyrich said.
They also invested in the North County's budding wine industry, opening Martin Bros. Winery on April 1, 1981 with several other families.
"Those were times back then when you were right on the edge all the time," Weyrich said. He described their debt-to-income ratio as a "disappointing scenario."
But they stuck with it and both companies grew.
"Tom and David were regarded as the best team in outdoor (advertising) in the country," said Mary Weyrich. They worked hard, found creative solutions and were willing to gamble, she said. "They weren't yes-men for each other."
The success story known as Martin Media went largely unnoticed in San Luis Obispo County until 1998, when the business was sold to Chandler Media Corp. for a jaw-dropping $610 million.
About 50 investors shared in the profits. "We made a lot of people millionaires," said Weyrich, the company's chief financial officer.
Some people might have used the sale as an opportunity to take an early retirement. Weyrich said he never considered it.
"You're put on earth to do something ... . I want to be productive and keep on going. In fact, I would feel irresponsible to go off and do that."
Since the sale, the Weyrichs have never been far from the front page. In fairly short order, they bought out their partners in the winery, renamed it Martin Weyrich Winery and announced expansion plans. They donated $2 million to local schools, snapped up $18 million in county real estate, created a chain of newspapers from scratch, invested in Atascadero's Carlton hotel and provided a home for a struggling food pantry.
Weyrich said he tries to pick projects that are fun and fill a need. "I'm not interested in building the average tract house and going out and churning the money."
His development company is marketing one of Paso Robles' more expensive housing subdivisions and prepping plans for 148 new homes on the Santa Ysabel Ranch south of town. He also hopes to build the city's first luxury apartment building and has expanded into San Luis Obispo with the $2 million purchase of the Jack Ranch in July.
Paso Robles Mayor Duane Picanco said Weyrich's resources give him the ability to take risks others can't. "By doing that it gives the area and the North County a balance of housing."
But his frenetic pace has prompted a few observers to suggest Paso Robles is fast becoming "Weyrichville."
"I'm able to focus on a large number of things at once," Weyrich said. "That's what I do."
'A hard blow'
It's a skill that comes in handy at home. The Weyrichs have eight children attending six different schools. Three are in college, one is at Mission Prep High School, three are at St. Rose Elementary School in Paso Robles and one is being taught at home.
"The one thing I'd say about David and Mary both is the number one thing in their life is family," said David Crabtree, a North County real estate agent and partner with Weyrich in the redevelopment of the Carlton Hotel.
Crabtree said he attended a business meeting where a bunch of guys in coats and ties were caught short when Weyrich suddenly left. "I've gotta go," he announced and headed off to coach a child's basketball team.
Gary Eberle, the owner of Eberle Winery in Paso Robles, said he isn't a close friend of the Weyrichs but got to know them better during a recent 10-day cruise to Costa Rica. They were part of a large group that bid for the cruise at a charity auction.
Eberle said he doesn't share Mary Weyrich's religious views but was impressed with her as a person. "She is just one of the kindest, sweetest, most upfront people," he said. "Nobody that knows her has ever said anything bad about Mary Weyrich."
Missy Erickson has known Mary Weyrich for years but said she hasn't been following the controversy that closely. "I don't see why that's a big deal myself."
Erickson works for the Tree of Life Pregnancy Support Center in Atascadero. The Weyrichs are long-time contributors, both to the pro-life center and its umbrella group, Care Net of Sterling, Va. Their donations to Care Net help pay for 8,000 billboard messages in the U.S., including one on Highway 101 in Paso Robles urging pregnant women to call a 1-800-number. Local callers are routed to a counselor at Tree of Life.
"I know the Weyrichs well enough to know they aren't people who hate," Erickson said.
Crabtree, the owner of Home and Ranch Realtors, described David Weyrich as a sensitive person who doesn't like confrontation. "To go through this kind of public scrutiny when he thinks he's doing something good has really been a hard blow."
Ink by the barrel
Public scrutiny and newspapers have traditionally gone hand in hand. Weyrich saw a need for something different: local news with the "negativeness."
"I had heard the Country News was up for sale, and one day at Rotary I mentioned it to Bob Chute." Chute was the publisher of the Country News at the time.
They talked some more, and Weyrich decided that a straight-out purchase wasn't the way to go. "I would be inheriting their package," he said.
Instead he started the Paso Robles Gazette in July and installed Chute as his new publisher. New editions for San Luis Obispo and Atascadero soon followed, and this Thursday, new full-scale papers will debut in the South County and on the North Coast.
There's been talk about expanding further, but Weyrich said there's nothing in the works at the moment.
The Gazettes' entry into the market quickly intensified the tug-of-war for advertising dollars and prompted The Tribune to counter with a North County weekly of its own.
Weyrich said he welcomes the challenge. "We're used to being competitive and actually enjoy it."
Weyrich said he's "savvy" when it comes to advertising and believes in supporting local businesses. But he denied reports that he's using strong-arm tactics to get the companies he does business with to advertise in his papers. "We just don't do that."
Ron Bast, the former editor of the Atascadero Gazette, challenged that assertion during an interview Friday.
Bast said the advertising sales staff in Atascadero was having a hard time making in-roads into the real estate market. Todd Hansen, who was responsible for Martin Media billboards in 16 counties before taking over the Gazettes, came down to help and called some potential advertisers himself, Bast said.
Bast, who was one of the first Gazette employees to quit over the censorship policy, said Hansen sent a clear message to the realtors he talked to: "If you guys ever have any desire to do any business with Weyrich Development, you'll have to do business with us."
Hansen said Friday he never said that and called Bast a "liar."
On the editorial side of the operation, Weyrich said he leaves all the major decisions to his publishers and doesn't read the papers until after they are printed. Publishers aren't required to fax him the editorials before they run, he said, and he hasn't issued any directives on how the papers are to cover his activities or the industries where he has a financial stake.
"To this day I haven't dictated anything in the real estate issues, thy wine issues," he said. "There is no hidden agenda."
That extends to politics, he said. In Tuesday's election, Weyrich said he supports incumbents Mike Ryan and Harry Ovitt for county supervisor. Campaign finance records show Weyrich has given at least $2,000 to Ryan's re-election effort and has provided at least $2,750 to the Cal Poly Republican Club, whose president is active in Ryan's campaign.
"I worry about my land rights and my farming rights," he said.
But Weyrich added that he hasn't used his papers to push his political views. The Gazettes have limited their coverage of the Fifth District race, for instance, to publishing side-by-side statements written by Ryan and challenger David Blakely. Bast confirmed that aside from the overall tone of the paper, he never noticed any direction from Weyrich until the edicts on abortion and homosexuality.
The taboo topics
Those dictates were explained at length in a front-page statement that appeared Feb. 24 in all the Gazette papers. Mary Weyrich's name appeared as co-author.
"Call us old-fashioned, but it hasn't been too many years since our professed beliefs were the accepted norm in America," they wrote. "Society has changed to the detriment, we believe, of us all as a people."
America has gone downhill over the past 30 years, Weyrich said. "Overwhelmingly people feel that way."
He said he doesn't blame gays for that and doesn't intend to exclude gays from his newspapers. "Everybody is part of God's plan."
This week's papers included several critical letters to the editor as well as a column by Teresa Mariani on Proposition 22 on Tuesday's ballot. "I'm still looking for one good reason why the law shouldn't allow gay couples to marry," she wrote.
Weyrich said he knows gays and has hired gays, but just doesn't want his papers used to promote what he calls "the act."
Many staff members and contributors wish somebody had confided in them before they signed on. Most of the employees at the Atascadero and San Luis Obispo Gazettes have quit. Some consider Weyrich's action a serious breach of journalistic ethics.
Brian Milne resigned Wednesday. The Cal Poly student worked as the sports editor of the Atascadero paper. "The media have a social responsibility to the community, and Weyrich is not living up to that responsibility," Milne wrote in a letter to the editor.
Milne's letter echoed a point raised by Weyrich and others: "You will be hard pressed to find an objective newspaper, even the most respected papers in the country are biased on some issues."
The difference is that journalists only tend to speak out when the bias reflects a conservative point of view, said Gary Eberle. "I guess it's OK to have an agenda on the left, but if you have an agenda on the right, you're a horrible person."
To see the Weyrichs castigated in the local media, particularly in New Times, is "so pathetic it's funny," Eberle said.
For his part, Weyrich said he regrets the misunderstanding but sees the resignations as a temporary setback. "I probably get five phone calls a day from people saying 'I want to come work for you.' I won't run scared."
— Published March 5, 2000 in the San Luis Obispo Tribune