See those big letters at the top of this page? It still says, "The Bakersfield Californian," doesn't it?
In case you're wondering, and I know some of you have been, it'll continue to say "The Bakersfield Californian" in a week or so, when this due-diligence month concludes and the newspaper officially changes hands, ending the Alfred Harrell family's 122-year run. It was a good one.
Somebody else will be holding the purse strings, but except for a couple of other noticeable details, this will be the same newspaper you've grown accustomed to.
The new owner, Sound News Media Inc., will print The Californian in Palmdale, at a press facility owned by a sister company, but the front-end personnel, including virtually all of the names you've come to know, will remain.
Many of us at The Californian had known for years that our situation — local family ownership with deep, historic community roots — was a rare blessing, something to be celebrated and cherished. The vast majority of newspapers in America belong to chains, some publicly traded, most privately held. We in The Californian's newsroom were fortunate to have our decision-makers one floor down, but as change swept the newspaper industry, it became increasingly evident that it would touch us here in Bakersfield, too.
The harbingers of change were evident: For more than a decade, consolidation had been rolling through an industry slow to effectively adapt to digital realities. Privately held newspaper groups were buying small- and medium-sized newspapers in particular and streamlining their operations, often by merging the press and production operations of multiple properties.
Omens of change were evident in Bakersfield as well: Three of the four inheritors of the Alfred Harrell estate, and its flagship property, the Bakersfield Californian newspaper, had died without heirs. The fourth heir, the family's only daughter, had been regarded, as she once told me, the unlikeliest of the four to run the family business. And yet here she was — Virginia "Ginger" Fritts Moorhouse, Harrell's great-granddaughter, in the publisher's office. For one reason or another, however, none of Moorhouse's three children — each at one time, in some capacity, a significant contributor — were prepared to maintain the family's ownership of the newspaper. So it was a matter of time.
The sale, more than a year in the making, was consummated on June 1, when it was announced that Sound California News Media, an Illinois-based entity created just three months ago, would acquire the newspaper and its sibling assets on June 30.
The Harrell-Fritts family will retain ownership of The Bakersfield Californian Building, a downtown landmark on the National Registry of Historic Places located at 1707 Eye St. The newspaper operation vacated the Eye Street building in early November, a move that, for most employees, portended an imminent sale. The Harrell-Fritts family also will retain ownership of the Harrell-Fritts Publishing Center, located at 3700 Pegasus Drive, where the newspaper operation is currently based. HFPC, as the building is known, sits on prime real estate — a short distance from the Meadows Field Airport's William M. Thomas Terminal and the gargantuan, soon-to-open Amazon fulfillment center.
Sound California News Media, whose sister corporations own the newspapers in the Antelope Valley, Porterville, Lodi and Marysville, among other cities, will own and produce the Bakersfield-based publications, including The Californian, Bakersfield Life magazine, the Tehachapi News, The Bakersfield Voice, The Record of Delano and the Kern Business Journal.
Among the other changes: The newspaper will be printed in the pressroom of the Antelope Valley Press. Bakersfield-based employees will digitally transmit the edited, formatted pages of each edition by midevening to the AV Press, where The Californian will roll off the presses and be trucked back to Bakersfield in the pre-dawn hours.
For more than a decade, The Californian has had a unique format: The Saturday and Sunday editions are printed on full-sized pages and the Monday through Friday editions are printed on smaller tabloid pages. That will end with the July 1 edition: The Californian will be printed seven days a week in the full-size format.
But the most vital piece of The Californian will remain substantially intact: Its stable of writers and editors.
There's one noteworthy exception.
Jim Lawitz, who for more than two years has served as The Californian's vice president and executive editor, leaves the newspaper on June 30.
Lawitz came to The Californian at a tumultuous time, when changes, some expected and some not, were taking place both at the highest levels of the company and in the rank and file, where the downsizing so common throughout the industry was continuing to create new challenges here. He did his best to navigate the newsroom through the icebergs of drastic transition.
"Some days weren’t pretty — sausage-making typically isn’t — but we managed to do some quality journalism," Lawitz said. “Despite what some detractors predict, this newsroom will be doing stellar work long after the family passes stewardship to the new owners."
Editors Christine Peterson, Stefani Dias, Teddy Feinberg and John Cox will remain, along with Herb Benham, Steven Mayer, Trevor Horn, Stacey Shepard and virtually every other reporter in the newsroom, as well as photographer Alex Horvath and others.
The Californian will continue to cover Kern County almost exclusively. We must: It's the one thing we can do more thoroughly and consistently than anyone. Heavy hitters like the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Guardian can and have parachuted in and done fine (and occasionally not-so-fine) work, but none of them will be at the Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting next month, or the BHS-Garces football game next fall.
Yes, those of us who've been around awhile will feel a bit of melancholy about the end of an era. I surely will.
Ginger Moorhouse was the best boss I ever had. She had an easygoing, authentic way about her, but a resolute sense of mission. She was fiercely proud of the Harrell legacy that was hers to protect, but not so proud she was willing to exempt her family from the cold scrutiny of news events.
I'll never forget late 2002, early 2003, when I was tasked with investigating a handful of loosely linked 20-year-old homicides that had new, sudden relevance. The story was dark and salacious, and the same names kept popping up. One was Ginger's brother, Ted Fritts, who held the job she eventually inherited. Some publishers would have killed or muted the story; Ginger bit her lip and carried on, and Editor & Publisher magazine named her publisher of the year for that and other acts of conscience and achievement.
Ginger helped me buy my first house and a succession of others down the line. She helped me feed, clothe and educate my children. She gave me the space and guidance to refine my craft.
Multiply that times a hundred or so and you get an idea of what Ginger Moorhouse did for Bakersfield and for her employees.
But times change.
Teddy Feinberg, who has served as sports editor and news editor during his 18 months at The Californian, is living proof.
"This is the fourth newspaper and third state of my 13-year career in newspapers," he said. "There's a reason for all that movement. The business is in tremendous transition.
"But The Californian will find its water level. Our society needs and demands quality journalism and we plan to provide it to our readership."
Some of us have little choice. It's in the blood, stamped into the DNA. We haven't been working for just the Harrell-Fritts family all this time. We've been working for yours, too. That won't change.