Ill wind in Willows

The Sacramento Valley Mirror is already skating on thin ice financially. Can it survive a legal battle against a major media conglomerate?

Tim Crews and Donna Settle, a couple for 10 years, operate the Sacramento Valley Mirror out of a tiny office in Artois. They chose the location because it’s exactly halfway between Willows and Orland, rural Glenn County’s largest towns.

Tim Crews and Donna Settle, a couple for 10 years, operate the Sacramento Valley Mirror out of a tiny office in Artois. They chose the location because it’s exactly halfway between Willows and Orland, rural Glenn County’s largest towns.

Photo by Tom Angel

Animosity—some friendly, some not so friendly— between rival newspapers is nothing new, but rivalry between the scrappy, iconoclastic Sacramento Valley Mirror and the long-established but rather pedestrian Willows Journal has reached a boiling point.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Technically, the battle is over the Mirror’s right to publish lucrative legal ads in Glenn County, but the war is really about its continued ability to publish, period. And it’s a David-vs.-Goliath story, too, as the Mirror (with a staff of mostly volunteers and a miniscule budget) is doing battle with Morris Multimedia, a huge corporation with deep pockets, to get the right to publish the legal ads.

For Mirror Editor-Publisher Tim Crews, it’s a fight for his paper’s very life. For Morris Multimedia, it’s a time-consuming test of endurance. And for the newspaper readers of Glenn County, it’s been a heck of a show, complete with tabloid-style headlines, nasty personal attacks and revelations about one editor’s shady past that have turned the whole matter into a bizarre soap opera.

Relations between the Mirror and Tri-Counties Newspapers, which is owned by Morris Multimedia, of Georgia, have never been good, to say the least. In print and in person, Crews calls Tri-Counties ‘Brand X.” Likewise, Tri-Counties’ papers (the company also operates the Corning Union, the Orland Press-Register and the Colusa Sun Herald locally) are suspicious of Crews.

So, while the papers have never been friends, so to speak, it’s probably fair now to call them enemies, flat out.

The fighting started this spring, when Crews filed for adjudication as a newspaper of record. The designation, given by a judge, would allow Crews to publish legal ads, fictitious-business names and the like. Currently, Tri-Counties owns the only adjudicated newspapers in Glenn County, giving the company a monopoly on the advertisements’ prices. Currently, that’s $75 for fictitious-business-name ads (the cost of legals depends on their size).

Crews, who admits that financially his paper just barely scrapes by each month, said he’d charge about half that to run fictitious-business-name ads in his paper, a boon to small, start-up businesses. Because the advertising base in Glenn County is limited, Crews says he needs the adjudication, and the extra income it would bring, if his paper is to survive. The legals, he estimates, would fully double the Mirror’s ad revenue.

‘For us, this is survival,” he said. ‘There’s no way around that.”

But Crews has more gumption than he has money, by a long shot. He runs the Mirror out of a tiny Artois office that’s practically hidden behind a huge corn processing plant, drives a car that must be at least 20 years old (‘Everyone makes fun of me for that,” he says with a smile) and acknowledges that his very existence is ‘hand to mouth.”

He has no health insurance, savings or retirement plan, and for a guy who’s looming in on 60 years old that’s an increasing concern. His days at the office usually turn into nights, but it’s obvious he’s proud of his scrappy paper—and he should be.

The Mirror has broken numerous important stories that other, larger newspapers—including his competitors—overlooked. He’s won several major awards for investigative journalism and is widely admired by his peers in the business. Crews made national news in 1999, when he spent several days in jail after refusing to reveal to a judge the name of the source who told him privately that a California Highway Patrol officer on trial for theft had stolen a gun out of police storage. The media coverage made him a regional celebrity, for a time.

He’s been successful in that regard, but his relative fame hasn’t made him rich—not even close. His longtime partner, Donna Settle, mortgaged her house to support the paper. She lost it. The couple now lives in a rented home with the two dogs (Barney and Kafka) they treat like children.

So far, the fight for adjudication has cost Crews at least $9,200, and that’s with a break from his lawyer. Crews tried five years ago for adjudication, but Tri-Counties held up the proceedings for months with challenges to his case. Finally, he says with a sigh, he could no longer afford to pay his lawyer to represent him, and he dropped the case.

This time, he’s vowed to fight until he’s adjudicated.

It’s not easy, though. When asked how close the paper is to folding, Crews visibly grits his teeth. ‘Pretty close,” he says frankly. ‘This is bleeding us white.”

Crews knows he’s got a serious fight on his hands, but on a hot day in early July he seems about as far away from the battle as he can get.

Sitting at his desk in his ramshackle Artois office, he’s knee-deep in a juicy story he’s been following for months. The autopsy report for a local woman in her early 30s, found dead this spring in a driveway, is back and indicates that she died of acute methamphetamine poisoning. Crews is disgusted that it took the county more than three months to determine her cause of death and plans to lambaste the Coroner’s Office for the delay.

‘Have someone you want to do away with?” he asks rhetorically, sitting at his keyboard and thinking out loud. ‘Bring them to Glenn County and kill them. … It’ll be months before anyone figures out what happened, and you’ll be in Mexico by then!”

It’s stories like these—important follow-ups and investigative pieces—that the readers of Glenn County would never read anywhere else. The Willows Journal, which is like most small-town newspapers in its mix of soft news and respectful reportage, prides itself on its ‘positive, community-minded” stories, something Crews is suspicious of.

Newspapers, he observes, aren’t supposed to be cheerleaders for the communities they serve. They’re supposed to be watchdogs for the public interest and the first to criticize wasteful spending and abuses of power—both of which Crews has ferreted out over and over again.

That’s not to say he never runs feel-good stories. Two weeks ago, he featured a piece praising the heroic efforts of volunteer firefighters who, while drenched in hot motor oil, worked to pull an injured man from his overturned car. The Mirror also routinely runs stories about lost animals being adopted and the like.

‘I just think that no matter how bad the news, [the public has] to hear it,” he says. ‘I’ve always thought that the only way to get people to see things as they are is to hold a mirror up for them and say ‘Look, this is you. This is how you look. This is how things really are.'”

Tri-Counties Newspapers, located next to a dusty airport along Interstate 5, is owned by Morris Multimedia. The corporation is based in Savannah, Ga.

Photo by Tom Angel

But doing that has made Crews few friends in Glenn County. (‘I like to say I have good friends and quality enemies,” he observed recently.) Crews has an on-and-off relationship with law enforcement there (mostly off now, as he recently ran a front-page story criticizing the Willows Police Department for not maintaining a complete accounting of its officer’s activities for the public). But even the people he criticizes seem to admire Crews’ guts.

‘Personally, I like him a lot,” said Glenn County Undersheriff Glen Padula. ‘I’ve asked him to stop by for coffee sometime. … Even when he criticizes us, I don’t take it personally. It’s not an adversarial role at all.”

The same goes for District Attorney Bob Holzapfel, who’s been sued by Crews.

‘He’s a normal guy who’s out looking for the news,” he said. ‘He does his job. … What more can I say?”

A few days after Crews filed for adjudi- cation this spring, the battle got personal.

In early May, Tri-Counties Editor Rayce Newman (who’s based at the Willows Journal office but oversees all four Tri-Counties papers) penned a column in which he questioned, in a tangle of syntax, why “some advertisers support a newspaper that promotes ‘atheism’ [his quotes] and bashes police, sheriffs and other county offices every chance they get.”

Newman went on to encourage consumers to boycott “these advertisers,” writing, “Why would anyone who attends Church [sic] and believes in God shop at these places? Yes, businesses have the right to advertise in any newspaper they wish, but paying money or trade to support a product that is full of … well, you get the point!”

The column was a thinly veiled attack on the Mirror, which, as part of a large and lively religion page, runs a weekly column written by Chico atheist Larry Judkins. Newman, who started working for Tri-Counties only recently, called the Mirror the “Valley Smear” in his column and attacked Crews personally, calling him “Mr. Timid Snooze.”

“Your 15 minutes are up, Mr. Timid Snooze!” reads a headline over his May 10 column.

It was an ironic statement from a man who apparently has been seeking fame for much of his adult life. Newman didn’t know it, but Crews had performed a simple Internet background check on Newman after his May 6 column was published, and it revealed more than Crews ever expected (please see sidebar).

Newman, it turns out, has a record that dates back to 1972, when he just 11 years old and was sent to the California Youth Authority for theft. Later, in 1981, his career in crime led to a conviction for auto theft and burglary; he was in prison until 1983. In 1985, he was convicted of burglary and forgery, sent to prison and released in November 1989. After a parole violation, he was sent back to prison in 1991, where he remained in 1992.

Just two years later, however, Newman published a book, The Hollywood Connection: The Drug Supplier to the Stars Tells All, in which he claims to have spent the 1980s acting in television shows like Battlestar Galactica and Magnum PI and later working as a high-rolling cocaine dealer to celebrity jet setters in Hollywood.

But because court records show that Newman spent much of the ‘80s in prison, his claims of celebrity hobnobbing and high rolling are suspect, at best. Crews questioned Newman’s claims in a front-page story published May 28, in which he disclosed Newman’s history of petty crimes. “No retraction—Mr. Newman: You’re just a burglar,” the headline reads.

Characteristically, Newman fired back with a column (his is called “Rayce’s Ramblings") in which he’s strangely self-congratulatory about his spotty past. He claims that he’s appeared on Oprah, Geraldo and “more than 150 talk shows around the world” to lecture about drug abuse (a claim that couldn’t be verified) and calls Crews a “a jealous, bitter old man who got kicked out of Paradise and every other paper he worked for because he is a no talent, uneducated, self righteous idiot, who thinks he’s God’s gift to journalism.”

Crews was livid. Two months later, he still is.

“I like to say, he got his degree at the University of Chino,” Crews said, referring to the state prison where Newman served his sentence out. “I mean, the guy’s just incredible. I don’t think he has any sense at all.”

Newman refused to be interviewed for this story, as did Dale Bean, the publisher of Tri-Counties Newspapers, who hired him. As a result, it’s impossible to know what kind of reaction the revelations about Newman’s criminal history caused around the office. Whatever else, they must have been a surprise. Michael Sunderman, president of Morris Multimedia’s newspaper division, confirmed that he knew nothing of Newman’s history before he was hired.

“The first time I heard his name was after he was already hired,” Sunderman said. “We give our properties a lot of freedom with who they hire and what they print.”

Sunderman, who works out of the company’s Savannah, Ga., headquarters, said that he’s “aware” of the conflict over adjudication between Tri-Counties and the Mirror.

But he denied that the media giant—which owns four network-affliated TV stations, five daily newspapers, 24 non-daily newspapers, several printing presses and a slew of advertising publications all over the country—is out to crush the Mirror.

“I wouldn’t say we’re out to do that,” Sunderman said. “We’re trying to make sure what he’s doing is fair.”

He declined to discuss the case in more detail. ("You’re just out to stir up mud,” he said.) But, in a nutshell, Morris Newspapers’ opposition to Crews’ adjudication stems from its claims that the Mirror doesn’t have enough paid subscribers to qualify and that Crews doesn’t maintain a list of those he has. Crews, however, produced a list of 927 paid subscribers (about 650 of them in-county) to a Glenn County judge last month, his lawyer, Duffy Carolan said. That, she said, is more than enough to qualify.

“The reason they’re challenging this is to maintain a monopoly,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Carolan insists that Crews has a strong case and predicts that when all the dust settles he will win adjudication. He’s due in court on Aug. 9 for a hearing to set a trial date, and Carolan plans to push to finish the case up by the end of August.

For his part, Crews hopes she’s successful. He knows he can’t afford to pay her much longer, and he worries about the future of his paper. When asked what he’ll do if he loses the battle and ends up closing the paper, he raises his eyebrows and looks surprised at the question. It’s clear he hasn’t really considered the possibility.

“Newspapering is my life," he says. "I think I’ll die at the keyboard or behind the camera. I love what I do, and I think it shows. I can’t imagine it any other way."