Tri-County News blues

Rumors of imminent closure swirl around four small-town newspapers

Photo by Tom Angel

Truth in reporting: Eleanor Cameron used to work for Tri-County Newspapers as their Orland reporter

The readers in four North Valley towns who are dependent upon a group of tiny, corporate-owned papers to learn what’s going on in their communities may be left in the dark—if rumors about imminent closure are true.

Lately, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation, serious distribution problems and unhappy employees have fueled rumors that Tri-County Newspapers, which publishes the Colusa County Sun-Herald, the Willows Journal, the Orland Press-Register and the Corning Observer, is in trouble. The rumors have grown to include possibly imminent closure and sale. Pinning down the facts behind the rumors and whether there’s truth to them has proved to be difficult. Sources within the company were afraid to speak on the record for fear of retribution, and those who did talk with the News & Review requested anonymity.

Though the four Tri-County papers operate as a single business entity, each of them is targeted to the small city it seeks to cover. Typical of small-town papers, their front-page stories are usually the type that wouldn’t even merit a few paragraphs on Page 3 in a Chico or Redding paper: A new business opening in Orland or a house fire in Corning is common fare, as are high school sports scores and opinion pieces on local politics. Each town’s paper—published three times a week—has its own front page, but inside pages are shared among all four papers, as are advertising and classifieds. Combined circulation is about 6,000.

“Our papers give [the communities] what they cannot get from large papers. All [our papers] are small, local news franchises,” said Gary Lawrence, vice-president of Morris Newspaper Corporation, headquartered in Savannah, Ga., and head of its California Division, which comprises eight newspapers. “They’re the only papers that will give the score of Johnny’s Little League game. We can give Colusa Colusa news, and the same goes for Orland and Willows.”

Lawrence was the only official affiliated with Tri-County willing to talk about the rumors. Mike Griffin, the managing editor of the four papers, said, “I don’t have any time if you’re interested in talking to me. Have a good day.” He immediately ended the call. Vern Ingraham, the general manager for Tri-County, also refused to answer questions, make any comments or elaborate on any information supplied by Lawrence, including circulation numbers.

The reluctance of Griffin and Ingraham to speak on the record could be due, at least in part, to the fact that I worked for Tri-County Newspapers for a period of six months. I resigned in September 2000 to further my education and improve my writing skills at Chico State University.

The closure rumors are the result of a surprise inspection conducted by OSHA. A former Tri-County employee complained about sound levels and fumes coming from the printing presses. On Jan. 19, OSHA investigators showed up at the Willows offices, where all four papers are printed, attached sound monitoring equipment to the presses and took air quality samples, said Dean Fryer, OSHA’s public information officer.

The presses continued running after it was determined no imminent hazard existed. The inspection’s findings will be released after the investigation is completed. OSHA officials estimate it will be another four to six weeks.

Just before the OSHA action, Tri-County was having problems getting the paper to readers’ doorsteps and into news racks. The difficulties were due to either a shift in how distribution was managed or to failures to get the papers to the distributor on time, depending on whom you ask.

Lawrence blamed the problems on switching to an in-house distribution system. “Under the old system, we had an independent contractor handle circulation delivery in the city areas.” The reason for bringing the service under Tri-County’s management was due to “difficulty reconciling service issues with the independent distributor. We can [now] immediately address problems and make adjustments,” Lawrence added.

Bob Brott, Tri-County’s former distribution vendor, begs to differ. “They never said anything to me about bringing it in house,” he said. Brott handled Tri-County’s distribution for 10 years and blames the problems on Ingraham’s management. Brott insists that there were no distribution problems until the change in management that saw Ingraham take over as general manager late last year.

Photo by Tom Angel

“They got a new manager in there, and people were starting to drop like flies,” he said. “The gal that did all of the office work [for circulation] quit. Paperwork got dropped. They tried to make it out to look like the carriers were the problem.”

Brott also said there were problems with the papers coming off of the presses late. “I would get the papers at 5:30 a.m., and they would expect us to get them rolled and delivered by 6,” said Brott, whose drivers were tasked with distributing the papers throughout Willows, Orland, Colusa and Corning. With all of the papers coming out of Willows, that was a tall order.

He was sent a letter in December. It told him he had 30 days to straighten out the problems or his contract would be terminated. Brott said he ultimately chose to terminate the contract himself, at which point Tri-County management threatened to sue him for breach of contract. When Brott called to request payment for December delivery, he said, “Ingraham told me that Tri-County didn’t have to pay because I didn’t fulfill the contract.” Brott said he thought about filing suit against Tri-County but decided against it after the company paid his carriers.

“What would be the point?” he explained.

In the middle of the distribution war, Willows residents woke up to find a strange photo on their front page: a Stonehenge-like formation of newspaper vending machines stacked in Tri-County’s parking lot. “Ingraham,” said Brott, “threatened to have me arrested for holding stolen property if I didn’t return the stands immediately.” Brott had been storing the unused stands in his garage.

“Vern is an asshole,” Brott opined. “I’m just glad to be out of there.”

The distribution problems combined with the OSHA action fueled rumors of a possible sale. A source within Tri-County, who requested anonymity, said employees “are convinced corporate headquarters is getting fed up with the problems out here. They think corporate is going to sell in order to wash their hands of the problem.”

Employee morale at Tri-County has been low for about eight months now, several current and former workers relate, and the company has had trouble keeping reporters and other staff for long. The Orland Press Register alone has lost three consecutive reporters—it has only one at a time—in less than a year: In April 2000, Kate Palmer left after accepting another job. Her parting advice to her replacement included the phrase, “Watch your back.” Palmer’s replacement, the author of this article, left in September 2000, the same week the editor of the Colusa paper resigned. Diana Nelson, the latest OPR reporter to walk out the door, quit on March 15. Nelson has since changed her phone number, so the News & Review was unable to reach her for comment.

Another employee at Tri-County said Nelson’s departure had to do with pressure regarding her coverage of a planning commission meeting. Martin Burrows, an Orland real estate agent, confirmed the series of events that led to her departure.

Apparently, Nelson was being pressured on another front as well. Burrows said that Orland Mayor Marjorie Palmer wrote a letter to Tri-County in which she complained that Nelson was sitting with the audience during public meetings rather than at a press table provided by the city. There, certain audience members with whom she was sitting were unduly influencing Nelson’s reporting, Palmer charged. She singled Burrows out by name. Palmer also charged that Nelson appeared to have a conflict of interest because of her friendship with Burrows.

However, Burrows insists Nelson’s biggest problem was dealing with the strong personalities in the advertising department—an issue I am very familiar with. While I enjoyed working at the Orland Press Register and respected most of the people there, I can state from personal experience that the sales department exerts an unhealthful influence over the editorial department.

In a company whose livelihood depends on communication, one would think management would move swiftly to quash inaccurate information and reassure employees. So far there are no indications of that happening, despite the number of rumors swirling around Tri-County.

In our conversation Lawrence emphasized that the small community papers are the “bread and butter” of Morris Newspaper Corp. “We are the last vestiges of the community newspapers,” he added.

But are they for sale? Facing closure? Absolutely not, said Lawrence, adding that the rumors are just rumors. "We have no plans to sell any of our papers."