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Media war ends in concession from the online news site formerly known as Atascadero Daily News

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It was a voice mail heard ’round the county. It was a declaration of war.

At least that’s how John Tompkins—president and CEO (and owner) of News Media Corporation headquartered in Rochelle, Ill.—described what the future would bring for Scott Brennan, owner of Paso Robles Daily News and the website formerly known as Atascadero Daily News.

On July 23, Brennan went to YouTube with a voice mail that Tompkins left him on June 18. In the message, Tompkins takes issue with the presence of Brennan’s two online daily news sites, which compete with News Media Corp.’s publications Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press. The call was apparently triggered by the launch of Atascadero Daily News in May, and it was the first time Brennan said he heard from anybody at Tompkins’ company.

In the voice mail, Tompkins told Brennan, a former News Media Corp. employee, that he just “woke up and finally looked at what [Brennan is] doing against [News Media Corp.] in Paso Robles, now Atascadero.”

“You’ve got my attention now, so I’ll be coming after you,” Tompkins continued. “And, uh, personally, and I am sorry it came to this, it shouldn’t have to, but, you know, frankly, this is a direct assault on us. And, so, I look forward to meeting on the field. I’ll be probably moving out there, bringing our people out there, and they will be so involved that you likely will be overwhelmed.”

The message continued: “This is a tough deal, if you want to go to war with us we’ll go to war. So I wish you luck.”

Brennan told New Times that initially, he wasn’t sure how exactly to take Tompkins’ message, or how to respond, so he sat on it while mulling over the best course of action.

A month later Brennan received a July 22 email from San Francisco-based attorney Brandon Stroy, an intellectual property and technology attorney with Maynard Cooper & Gale, that told Brennan that a cease and desist letter was being sent via FedEx. The next day, Brennan received the letter, which told him he must stop using the name Atascadero Daily News and the site’s Twitter handle @atascaderonews.

“Because the ‘Atascadero News’ mark is uniquely associated with Atascadero News, and is thus widely understood within the community as referring to, and only to, Atascadero News, and not to any other news service or other entity, your use of the terms Atascadero Daily News and ‘Atascadero News’ creates a likelihood of confusion with our client as to the source, sponsorship, affiliation, and creation of news, advertising, subject matter, and other content,” the letter said.

“While our client does not seek to silence your publication of legitimate and newsworthy events, it cannot allow impermissible use of terms that infringe its trademarks and cause significant confusion and irreparable harm to its business.”

That prompted Brennan to take the matter online, and he decided to share Tompkins’ threatening voice mail.

“I think if somebody is going to declare war on my company, then I’m going to respond,” Brennan said. “I don’t have a lot of money to fight against a multimillionaire; all I have is a voice, so I decided to use a voice the best I could.”

Brennan, who runs the parent publishing company Access Publishing—which primarily owns phone books and lifestyle magazines—with his wife, Beth, feels that Tompkins is threatening his family’s livelihood.

“The best thing I could do was publish the message and say, ‘This is what’s happening to us,’” Brennan said.

It isn’t clear whether Tompkins was provoked by the perceived trademark infringement or Access Publishing’s expansion into more of News Media Corp.’s territory. Tompkins didn’t return requests for comment, nor did his Chief Financial Officer Mike Rand or John Bartlett, publisher for the company’s California and Oregon publications.

Tompkins did leave some clues in an article published by his Paso Robles Press. The July 23 article, which reads more like a press release, leads with: “News Media Corp. President John Tompkins, owner of the Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press, said he continues to be hurt and surprised by the tactics of local business competitor and former employee Scott Brennan.”

The article then quotes Tompkins.

“I could not believe Scott would do this to us after all we had done for him,” Tompkins said in the article. “I don’t have any ill will toward him or his family and apologize for any misunderstanding.”

When he was 25, Brennan got his start in the news business at the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian. He was hired at the paper in 1995 and worked in the business office for a year before becoming a reporter and eventually the managing editor. In 1999, Brennan was promoted to become the publisher of News Media Corps’ South County Newspaper outfit, which included publications in King City, Greenfield, Soledad, and Gonzalez, which he managed until 2006. During that time, Brennan was also the Atascadero News publisher for a stint after News Media Corp. purchased the paper in 2003. News Media Corp. owns 76 community newspapers throughout the country.

In 2006, Brennan bought the North County Access, a phone book in Paso Robles. He and his wife expanded the company by launching the SLO County Visitor’s Guide while also purchasing and starting a few other small phone books. In 2012, Brennan started the online-only site Paso Robles Daily News, which he said was mostly a hobby.

“We saw that we can help deliver timely, quality online news in daily form for readers that are looking for it, for readers who don’t want to read old news,” Brennan said, adding that the idea to launch that website, and to eventually begin another for Atascadero, was in part because the existing publications had a limited, antiquated online presence, with mostly subscriber-only content. The existing publications were primarily print—twice weekly and now weekly—while Brennan’s new outfit would be exclusively online.

“I really do have a deep appreciation for the career that I had with News Media Corp.,” Brennan said. “They taught me a lot, I looked up to John Tompkins, and I was really shocked by the message that he left me.”

Tompkins told the Paso Robles Press that it was the trademark infringement that irked him, not the competition from a former employee.

“He was using our name,” Tompkins said. “I was personally hurt that Scott would do this, therefore I sent the voicemail. What I meant by going to war is that Scott had shot the first shot by using our name.”

Brennan said the Paso Robles Press article did not contact him for a comment in their article. The Atascadero Daily News in turn ran another article the next day that included the cease and desist letter.

That letter asked Brennan to respond by 5 p.m. on July 27. And Brennan did just that with an announcement that he was changing the name of the Internet news site to A-Town Daily News, referencing the town’s commonly used nickname.

In a letter addressed to News Media Corps’ attorney Brandon Stroy, Brennan writes: “I feel confident that using the name ‘Atascadero Daily News’ does not infringe on your client’s purported trademark rights. The name is simply a generic description of what our company provides—news to readers in the Atascadero area on a daily basis.

“However, I would rather devote my time and attention to our growing business, than spend energy and resources on potentially protracted litigation.”

Stroy said his client declined to comment on whether the name change resolved the issue.

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

STUCK IN THE MUD Owner and president of News Media Corporation, which owns Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press, left this friendly message for Scott Brennan, former employee and owner of Access Publishing, parent company for Paso Robles Daily News and A-Town Daily News.

VIA PASO ROBLES DAILY NEWS YOUTUBE.COM CHANNEL

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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