On Jan. 26, 1897, Alfred Harrell, then the 34-year-old Kern County Superintendent of Schools, bought The Daily Californian. On June 30, 2019, his great-granddaughter, Ginger Moorhouse, sold it.
She had no choice, if anyone wants my opinion, and she was courageous to have held onto it for as long as she did. But this day had been coming.
Today, Sunday, June 30, at 5 p.m., one of the last few family-owned daily newspapers in America, and perhaps its longest held, passes from control of the Harrell family after 122 years. The new owner is Sound News Media Inc., which has corporate brethren in California, Arizona, Canada, Illinois and New England.
The Ginger Moorhouse era is one to be celebrated — she made Bakersfield a better place; the evidence is abundant — but the sale represents the last, difficult episode in a too-often-tragic miniseries. Screenwriters would have a field day.
Berenice Fritts Koerber, Harrell's granddaughter, had four children: William "Bill" Chipman Fritts, Donald Harrell Fritts, Virginia "Ginger" Fritts Moorhouse and Theodore "Ted" Fritts. It was a given that the three boys would run the family business and Ginger Fritts — for years Ginger Cowenhoven — would be content to raise a family in her adopted New Hampshire.
It didn't work out that way. Bill Fritts left the newspaper in 1970, after just three years, and moved back to San Francisco, where he owned a men's clothing store. He died by suicide a year later at age 32.
Don Fritts, Bill's younger brother, subsequently rose to editor and publisher of the newspaper but, stricken with Huntington's disease, a hereditary, degenerative brain disorder, he stepped away from the newspaper's operation in 1989, formally retired in 1991 and died in 2006 at 69.
Ted Fritts, the youngest of the four, came up through the ranks to serve as executive editor and co-publisher. He held those posts from 1978 until 1988, but died in July 1997 at age 50 of complications from AIDS, a decade after he had essentially retired from the newspaper's day-to-day management.
That left Ginger Moorhouse, who was named publisher in 1989, the year after Ted's retirement.
From day one, Moorhouse embraced the challenges and opportunities that the role laid at her door. She saw herself as a smaller-market version of the late Katharine Graham, legendary owner of the Watergate-era Washington Post, and in many ways she was.
She was enormously proud of her great-grandfather and what he had accomplished in establishing The Bakersfield Californian. She was proud of his editorial stands in the 1920s against the Kern County Ku Klux Klan, which had a firm foothold (and influential members) at the time. That was how she felt about her role, too. She wasn’t afraid to anger the powerful if she thought it was the right thing to do.
Few serious community needs escaped her attention.
Kern County motorists — entire families in some cases — were dying on Highway 46, the two-lane, undivided highway that connects Bakersfield to the Central Coast. In response, in 1991, she started the "Fix 46" campaign. Assemblyman Dean Florez took over the effort and made it his signature success, and that was fine with Moorhouse. He had the political clout she sought to ignite: Florez acquired the funding to add medians, shoulders and lanes to that once-lethal stretch of highway. The work continues to this day, but 46 is already enormously safer and more convenient.
In the mid-1990s, when Moorhouse learned that the city would be closing public swimming pools, she raised money through Opinion-section editorials and managed to keep several of them open. And she contributed her own money to the cause.
In 1996, when the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce needed a bigger, better building in a more central location, Moorhouse donated a corner lot on "her block," along with the cost of the demolition of the old retail store in that spot, and the chamber then built and continues to occupy the building that stands there today.
In 2005, when residential developers fenced off the Hang Glider Hill bluffs northeast of Bakersfield, requested zoning changes and sought favorable building standards, she shrugged off pressure and criticism and fought for stricter guidelines that included open-space requirements.
Despite oil industry objections, her newspaper championed air pollution regulations that stopped the burning of oil in the many Kern oil field steam generators. State air quality officials forced oil producers to invest billions of dollars to convert the generators to cleaner burning natural gas. Moorhouse, through her newspaper, fought to clean up Kern County’s air.
She fought long and hard to control and cure valley fever, the illness caused by the inhalation of a fungus indigenous to Kern County and much of the southwestern United States. It later became a much more personal fight: The disease caused her husband, John Moorhouse, to lose the kidney she had donated to him.
Literacy was and remains an important cause for her. Moorhouse launched the Californian in Education newspapers-in-the-classroom program and started a community reading project that survives to this day.
She was a big believer in the importance of listening to the community and inviting readers onto the page. To that end, she started a decadeslong program naming two members of the community — a man and a woman — to serve six-month terms on her editorial board, which also included herself, her top executives and Opinion section editors. The board met weekly with people who wanted the newspaper’s support for one cause or another. And usually they got that support — mostly with news coverage and editorials, but frequently also with Moorhouse’s own sweat. She was never shy when it came to rolling up her sleeves and working for causes — often quietly and anonymously, like any ordinary Bakersfield resident.
Those community board members, it should be noted, got an equal vote when it came to deciding editorial board positions, many of them controversial, including political endorsements.
Hart Park, that 370-acre community treasure northeast of the city, has always been one of her causes; she has been involved in efforts to clean it up and to form a nonprofit to preserve it.
In 1992, Moorhouse and her family established what today is known as the Virginia and Alfred Harrell Foundation. The foundation, devoted to education, with emphasis on literacy and the arts in Kern County, donated $245,000 to local causes just this spring alone. The Kern County Museum has been one of its chief benefactors; The Bakersfield Californian Foundation Research Center, which opened in 2016, is but one of the museum's foundation-funded attractions. Moorhouse's eldest daughter, Tracey E. Cowenhoven, has long been the foundation's chief executive.
Moorhouse grew up in the Bay Area, but moved to the East Coast after college. At the time she decided to take over management of the newspaper that had been in her family for decades, she was raising three teenagers, divorcing and working as a reporter for a New Hampshire weekly newspaper. Like so many newspaper reporters, she had printer’s ink in her veins. She loved covering stories and taking the photographs to illustrate them. Maybe that's why she was always so supportive of The Californian’s reporters. Newspaper publishers tend to be businessmen and businesswomen; newsrooms are full of busybodies and borderline zealots who don't much care if they irritate politicians or anger advertisers, and yet that's who Moorhouse most often identified with. She shrugged off the negative and embraced the thrill of a good news story.
Maybe that's why she left me alone while I was reporting out one of the most explosive stories I've written — the Lords of Bakersfield. Among the major players in that sordid 2003 tale of sex, exploitation and homicide was her brother Ted, who was compelled to testify in the scandalous 1981 murder trial of a teenage hustler who had been his paramour. Years later, when the story returned to relevance, Moorhouse left me to connect what dots I could connect, and the newspaper industry honored her for it — she was Editor & Publisher's 2004 publisher of the year, and the University of Oregon named The Californian winner of the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.
Even as The Californian, and newspapers in general, became less profitable, she fought to keep things going. One particular member of her corporate board, which advised on financial matters, would often drop in unannounced to discuss the newspaper’s increasingly dire financial condition. Sell, he advised. She fumed and started trying to avoid him. "He just didn’t get it,” she would tell Dianne Hardisty, who was her editorial page editor for two decades. The Bakersfield Californian, to Moorhouse, was a legacy, a public trust, and she vowed not to sell it.
Economic realities, hastened by the digital revolution, changed all that. When Moorhouse moved into the publisher's office in 1989, she was no doubt hopeful one or all of her three children would carry the company forward. For a time it seemed they might: Tracey worked as an editorial writer and letters editor for The Californian; Virginia "Ginny" L. Cowenhoven rose from communications analyst in the newspaper's marketing department to associate publisher; and Peter Cowenhoven, who lives in Boston and works in the financial industry, became a central decision-maker through his role on the company's board of directors.
Now that story has ended. The Harrell-Fritts matriarch has retired to her property in northeast Bakersfield and the mantle has been passed.
As the family's unofficial biographer, I simply had to write this closing chapter. I was tasked with writing about each of the family's several milestone events: Its 100-year anniversary of family ownership, in 1997; Ted's obituary, that same year; the Lords of Bakersfield saga, in 2003; Don's obituary, in 2006; the move from the historic Eye Street building in 2018; and, now, the sale and transfer.
I salute a family that has endured much, but given much.
A new era dawns.