Special Report: Home Truths

With vision and courage, Publisher of the Year Ginger Moorhouse of ‘The Bakersfield Californian’ woke up her sleepy family newspaper.

For decades, just about everybody in Bakersfield had heard whispers about a shadowy cabal of powerful men with secret gay lives who supposedly ran the small city in southern California’s San Joaquin Valley, protecting each other as they preyed on teenage boys—victims who occasionally exacted a deadly revenge.

But while nearly everyone had heard the legend of the so-called Lords of Bakersfield over the years, almost nobody expected to read about it in their hometown paper, The Bakersfield Californian. Yet there it was on Jan. 19: an eight-page package of articles and photos laying out in sometimes graphic detail a sordid tale of corruption, pedophilia and murder that stretched from the 1950s to the present day.

Even more extraordinary was the story the family-owned newspaper told on itself. A long-ago general manager was revealed as a suspected child molester. The Californian’s past practice of burying or killing embarrassing stories was documented. And former publisher Alfred Theodore “Ted” Fritts—the deceased brother of the current publisher—was linked to an underage gay prostitute.

In the days that followed “The Lords of Bakersfield” special report, Californian chairman and publisher Virginia F. “Ginger” Moorhouse would hear herself repeatedly praised for her courage in throwing open the newspaper’s closetful of skeletons. “I think Ginger was a little taken aback by all the people who praised her,” says Mike Jenner, Californian vice president and executive editor. “To her, I think, it wasn’t an issue of courage, it was what she was supposed to do. So I think she was a little surprised.”

Moorhouse was indeed surprised: “To me it wasn’t an act of courage, it was just a right thing to do. If my brother Ted had been alive, he would have encouraged us to do it, too.” Yet the publisher is not unaware of the impact of the “Lords” report: “I think it was kind of a defining piece for our paper.”

It is, however, only one of several reasons that Ginger Moorhouse is Editor & Publisher’s Publisher of the Year 2003.

Putting Bakersfield on the map

Certainly, the “Lords” report brought national attention that the 71,000-circulation Californian had never before enjoyed. But for several years newspaper industry observers had been taking note of the transformation Moorhouse and her executive team were enacting on a paper that had long had a poor reputation among its peers.

These days the family-owned Californian is operated like a paper several times its size.

Even before the Readership Institute began promoting the urgency of changing the “defensive culture” of newspapers, the Californian had adopted that as a management mantra. It has institutionalized innovation through efforts such as its “Area 51” brainstorming group. This midsize paper is building its own CRM (customer relationship management) database from scratch—and went outside the newspaper industry to find someone to do it. At a time when other newspapers are deferring capital projects, Moorhouse greenlighted $6 million in improvements to the Californian’s packaging center, including a new Ferag inserter and a new IP (Internet protocol) phone system.

And for all the plaudits it earned, “Lords” may not be the paper’s most gutsy editorial effort in the past year.

After all, many of the subjects of the “Lords” package were, to put it plainly, creeps. But last spring the paper took on a beloved institution, the Kern County Fire Department, whose nationally acclaimed firefighters are among the first called when wildfires rage in the West. The paper discovered that the department was allowing many low-ranking officers to inflate their salaries astronomically with uncontrolled overtime pay.

Public employee unions called the investigation an invasion of privacy that threatened even the physical security of the families of firefighting heroes. A boycott was noisily organized, and the county forced the Californian into court repeatedly to get pay records. (The paper was vindicated earlier this month when an appeals court ordered the records released—and the Californian’s substantial legal bills paid by the county.)

“[Moorhouse] wants aggressive journalism and is willing to take the heat when it comes,” Jenner says.

Newspaper chains nationwide haven’t just noticed how much better the Californian is—they want to make it their own. “Hardly a week goes by when I don’t get a call from someone wanting to buy it,” says president and CEO Richard Beene. “It’s my duty to pass it on, but she just cuts me off and says no. I’ll say, ‘Don’t you even want to know who it is making the offer?’ ”

Not really. “I would never sell the newspaper,” Moorhouse says. “There is no price that is high enough.” There are many reasons, she says, and two work in the building—her daughters, Tracey, an editorial writer at the paper, and Virginia “Ginny” Cowenhoven, a database analyst. The family, Moorhouse says, “is in the fourth generation of ownership, moving into the fifth generation.”

Tea and sympathy

The Ginger Moorhouse who snaps those words out now was not so confident 14 years ago as she met for lunch with Katharine Graham, then chairman of the Washington Post Co.

The two women were very much alike. Growing up, neither had ever expected—nor, more to the point, had they been expected—to someday run the family newspaper. Both had married and raised children. Yet a family tragedy—the suicide of her husband Philip Graham in August 1963—had thrust a timorous Kay Graham into leadership. Tragedy was striking the Bakersfield newspaper family as well: One after another, Moorhouse’s three brothers, anointed to run the Californian, were unable to do so because of suicide and illness.

When the two women met, Graham had long since emerged from her ordeal to become a towering institution, while Moorhouse’s leadership had yet to be tested.

“Ginger was very much like Kay Graham. She didn’t have full confidence in herself,” recalls George Wilson, president and CEO of the Concord, N.H.-based Newspapers of New England. It was Wilson who arranged the meeting, which in many ways was a turning point in Moorhouse’s life.

When Wilson met Moorhouse, she was raising three children in a failing marriage and working as a reporter for The Cabinet, an 8,000-circulation weekly in Milford, N.H. She had come to the paper with almost no journalism credentials outside her bloodline: She had worked as a kindergarten and physical education teacher, and she had once owned a store that sold horse-riding gear.

Moorhouse had started at the paper with no real plan beyond indulging her love of writing. “She used to say she’d do it for free,” says Cabinet assistant editor Kathy Cleveland. The two worked together, covering the small-town news of school boards, planning commissions and car crashes. “She was humble and sweet and funny,” Cleveland says. “We knew her family connections, but we didn’t think she would ever be publisher.” Moorhouse was good at the job, Cleveland adds: Listening to some ambiguous chatter on the police band one day, Moorhouse figured out there had been a murder, and beat all other news media to the scene.

But events were conspiring to bring her to Bakersfield. Though Moorhouse was never supposed to head the Californian, the newspaper had a long history of women leaders. In 1946, its legendary owner, Alfred Harrell, was succeeded by his widow, Virginia, who in turn was succeeded by her daughter, Bernice Harrell Chipman. Moorhouse’s mother, Berenice Fritts Koerber, served as president.

The men of Moorhouse’s generation were fated to have shorter tenures. First, her eldest brother, William Fritts, committed suicide. The next in line, Donald, became publisher in 1970, but was soon diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. As his health deteriorated, leadership eventually passed to youngest brother Ted, who figured in the “Lords” special report. He left the paper in 1986 and sold his stake back to the family a few years later. In 1997, at age 50, Ted died of complications from AIDS in San Diego.

Watching from New Hampshire, Moorhouse says now, “I began to realize, ‘Well, I guess I’m the one.’ ”

Though she was going through a divorce and working at the Cabinet, she began pursuing an MBA at night and on weekends. Moorhouse was getting worried, Wilson recalls. “The [Californian] had absentee owners, and what she was seeing was a newspaper that had been in the family for a long, long time and was going to be sold,” he says. “The lawyers were swarming, and the newspaper wasn’t very good.” She sought out Wilson for advice, peppering him with questions about newspaper operations during lunch meetings every couple of weeks.

One question came up repeatedly, Wilson says. “She’d say, ‘Who should I talk to?’ ”

Kay Graham, for one. “She was great,” Moorhouse says, and even now a note of relief sounds in her voice. “She said it’s very important to be there and be involved. You can’t be an off-site owner, she said. She was very encouraging of my going back and putting a family stamp on the business.”

Moorhouse didn’t go back immediately. She was elected chairman and president in 1989, and took the title of publisher soon after. But she had remarried and had a son in high school, so she stayed a little while longer in New Hampshire.

‘The Lords of Bakersfield’

A dysfunctional newspaper awaited her arrival, according to Wilson, who joined the company’s board of directors: “Morale was terrible,” he says. “Nobody talked to anybody.”

Beene, one of Moorhouse’s first hires, recalls the atmosphere when he arrived as executive editor. “What I saw was a lethargic, underachieving, lazy newsroom,” he says. “And that attitude affected the whole culture of the paper, because there hadn’t been a family member on board for some time. And the paper had slipped.”

Some veteran managers, who Californian executives say had confused their employment in a family paper with a belief that they were family members, were shown the door. “We’re pretty tough on people,” Beene says. “We’ll let the slow performers go, and she’ll make those tough decisions. But on the other hand, we richly reward the good people.”

Moorhouse scored her first success in attracting a strong executive team. “Getting people who were willing to work at The Bakersfield Californian—that was the hardest thing,” Wilson says. “Back then, the reputation of the paper wasn’t very good.”

Yet Moorhouse says when she finally moved to the paper in 1994, the transition was smooth. “It was seamless. It felt like coming home,” she says. One big reason why is her philosophy of management: “Hire bright people, pay them as much as you can, and let them go.” She says she had no desire to be a micromanager. “You can see from my résumé that I don’t have the editorial experience, the financial experience. I know just enough to be dangerous, I guess. But the people here understand our vision and run with it and make a difference themselves.”

Labor relations were never as fractious as some executives portray them nor as trouble-free as the paper’s owners would like people to believe, says Steve Swenson, president of the local unit of The Newspaper Guild and a 24-year Californian employee. But he adds that Moorhouse is a “peacemaker” and notes that, at a time of bitter newspaper labor negotiations up and down the West Coast, the current newsroom contract was negotiated last year in an astonishing 10 days. “That’s a level of cooperation between union and newspaper that has to come from the top,” Swenson says.

No silos here

Californian management, however, is anything but a top-down affair. Executives say Moorhouse’s style is collegial in a way they’ve never experienced before. “This is my seventh newspaper,” Beene says, “and I’ve worked for some people I hold in great esteem. But Ginger Moorhouse is in a class of her own.” Jenner adds that Moorhouse approaches managers more as a peer than a boss.

She also can be direct. Jenner recalls that shortly after he was promoted to executive editor, Moorhouse asked him to stop by her office. “After exchanging pleasantries,” he says, “she asked me a simple question: ‘Are we excellent?’ I told her I thought we were pretty good a lot of the time, and occasionally very good, but I couldn’t answer with a ‘yes.’ She then asked me to figure out what it would take to become excellent.”

Moorhouse came to the paper determined to break down its “silos”—MBA-speak for self-contained departments that don’t have anything to do with other departments in a business. “Changing culture—that’s huge,” Moorhouse says, and as the saying goes in MBA classes, Californian executives are clearly drinking the Kool-Aid. They talk of acting as if they are the owners, of “horizontal” management, of looking out for the interest of the paper as a whole, not just their own departments.

As occupants of the executive suite describe it, the division of labor is clear: Moorhouse considers the big picture, and managers take it from there. “She’s looking down the road, not only to the fifth generation, her kids—but their kids, too,” Beene says. “She wants this to last for another four generations.”

To ensure that, Moorhouse has created several in-house structures to focus on innovation and long-range plans. “In this business, where you’re putting out a product every day, it’s very hard to think of doing things for the future, for 10 or 15 years out,” she says.

Innovation at the Californian can be both large- and small-scale. A couple of years ago, for instance, the paper budgeted $100,000 to fund Area 51, a brainstorming group named after the Nevada site that so intrigues believers in space aliens. Its mandate was to be “constantly looking out for the future,” Moorhouse says. “We even got them white lab coats with their names on them. They’re our mad scientists.”

Other investments are far bigger. The paper is building its own CRM database system—an undertaking virtually unheard of for a paper of the Californian’s size. Under the direction of Darrell Kunken, vice president of strategic marketing and interactive media, the project has involved recruiting researchers from outside the industry, because there was no one in newspapering doing the same thing, Beene says.

Californian ad salespeople are “almost like media buyers” for their accounts as they match up advertisers with readers most apt to buy, Beene says. They devise the best media strategies for advertisers—which doesn’t always mean newspaper alone. “Say an advertiser is doing direct mail,” Beene explains. “With this database, we can show them how to do direct mail better—and we don’t do direct mail.”

The Californian is also not afraid to look bad. “For the past year we have been weaning ourselves off discounting, and watching the number drop, as we concentrate our efforts on full-value sales in key demographic ZIPs,” Beene says. “Our strategy is, get away from the ‘rented’ cheap circulation that quickly turns to churn.”

Margin calls

Moorhouse says she’s just following family tradition when she approves reinvestment. “It’s never been about the money with this family,” she says. “Now you have to pay attention to business and keep the margins fairly stable, because you need to invest in the future.”

She says she is skeptical about recent moves by some families to keep their papers independent by hooking up with nonprofit foundations or institutions. “We work really hard on our margins,” she says, “and assuring that we have a certain profit because we need to invest. I’m really concerned about how you do that with the nonprofit model.”

Family, though, is the key word in all her business discussions, colleagues say. “She is fiercely independent and fiercely determined to keep the paper independent,” Beene says. Family considerations also drive her public service. “If you’re an owner on site, it makes a huge difference,” Moorhouse says. “You’re here for the people, you’re here for the community, and you want them to succeed. I’m always telling our people, ‘Bakersfield is our middle name.’ ”

Judith Pratt, who teaches journalism at California State University at Bakersfield, has both witnessed and experienced that public service. “She has just made the whole operation available as a learning tool,” says Pratt, a former Californian employee and adviser to the school paper. “She’s helped [the student paper] move from paste-up to digital. But it’s not just here. She’s seen everywhere around town. It’s just a very different thing when the newspaper is a family down the street.”

The family is staying, Moorhouse vows. And even in an era of consolidation, she notes that several factors favor her plan. For one thing, it’s a remarkably small family. “We don’t have 40 cousins and people that are so far outside the business,” she says. The family also does not have a history of infighting.

Moorhouse is changing one family tradition, however: She’s locking up family ownership not only with legal mechanisms, but also with more discussion about succession than her generation ever heard. “Was there talk about formal succession? Oh my gosh, no, not at all.” Nowadays, she says, “estate planning takes up a huge part of my time. We’ve got all these trusts and life insurance policies to cover any costs of estate taxes. We spent, gosh, a lot of time to make sure the company passes down to the next generation.”

Ginger Moorhouse also has a more immediate task: This summer, the sister who was never expected to get involved in the family paper will become president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “It’s funny how life is,” she says.

Chicago-based Mark Fitzgerald is editor at large for Editor & Publisher.