Meet the 'cranky country publisher' who files lawsuits instead of tweets
At the Sacramento Valley Mirror, Tim Crews is everything.
He’s the founder, publisher, editor and owner. He reports, takes photos and sells ads. The newspaper is so small that he even helps deliver copies when it prints twice a week.
And you wouldn't know it by his blank email signature or no-nonsense tone, but Crews is also a controversial, bulldog investigator. He’s used open records to expose wrongdoing by public officials, penned countless editorials about various misdeeds and published long-form investigations about local government. But what people think of the plucky 73-year-old varies widely, from a noble bastion of watchdog journalism to a scandalous rabble-rouser who’s up to no good.
"He has no friends, but he recognizes no enemies," said Rowland "Reb" Rebele, a First Amendment Coalition board member. "He’s a hero for journalism everywhere."
Located in Willows, California — a small town in the middle of the sweltering valley for which the Mirror is named — Crews works seven days a week to stay in business. The poker-faced Santa Claus look-alike occasionally even goes around town begging people to buy ads.
"Every week is another war," he said. "We struggle to pay the bills, to keep the doors open.”
And recently, that war has gotten even harder to wage.
Crews said he has been shot at, his office burgled, his building set on fire, his car's brakes weakened and his dog Kafka poisoned. In late March, Crews and reporter Larry Judkins were the subject of threatening phone calls and complaints after writing about a local homicide, according to a recent Reporters Without Borders (RSF) article. The Mirror publisher even sent the journalism advocacy organization a photo of a noose that was left in front of the newspaper's downtown Willows office in late April.
"This threat, in broad daylight, means to us that the perpetrators, who are trying to warn us off a series we are working on, are operating with impunity," Crews told the RSF.
In June, the Online News Association, Society of Professional Journalists and Committee to Protect Journalists joined the RSF in sending a letter to the Willows police chief calling for an investigation into the threats, which came amid a national uptick in hostility against the media. But the pressure hasn't stopped the Mirror from doing some dogged public records reporting.
In a time when many local papers have been decimated by cost-cutting and shrinking print ad budgets — merging, folding and compromising good journalism for clicks — the Mirror stands out. The 16-page broadsheet has become known for both its fight for open records access in California and its penchant for local gossip — despite having only a three-person full-time staff and a smattering of volunteers.
"I don’t see many small papers doing what we do," Crews said.
Crews said his newspaper files an average of more than 20 state records demands every year, some of which he goes to court to defend. In 2013, a California appeals court ruled that the publisher didn't have to pay the legal fees for the school board he sued over an open records request — a major win for government transparency, according to the First Amendment Coalition. In 2000, Crews spent five days in jail after refusing to reveal the names of his sources in a case involving a local police officer's theft of a firearm.
"In a figurative sense, he’s taken a bullet for the First Amendment," said Richard Molin, a Chico-based personal injury attorney who advertises in Crews' paper. "Not many other people have gone to jail over their issue out of principle."
But for Crews, the fight for press access and government transparency isn't a principled or glorious one. It's a way of life — one he’d like to keep up for another 10 years.
"You have to just stand up for yourself," he said. "If someone is messing with you, you have to fight back. It's just the American way."
'A little unusual'
Before Crews was an irreverent newspaper publisher, he was a blue-collar worker and itinerant journalist.
Born in Aberdeen, Washington, Crews grew up in Olympia, where he helped take photos for the local newspaper. He spent three years in the Marine Corps and started attending Central Washington State College in 1963, where he studied on and off for seven years before deciding it wasn't for him. After working for a logging company, a steel mill and in commercial fishing, he injured his back and decided to try his hand at being a journalist.
He landed his first newspaper job at the Santa Barbara News & Review in the mid-1970s.
"I was the house libertarian in a liberal employee-owned weekly. Much fun," he said.
The move kicked off Crews' Quixotic journey around the world, taking him to writing gigs in Texas, Colorado, Washington and even the Middle East before moving back to California in the 1980s. Through and through, Crews' blue-collar upbringing was always a way for him to connect with people.
"I can look at people and look at their hands and I know what they’re going through," he said. "I know what other people don’t know."
In 1989, Crews was hired on as general manager and editor at the Tri-County Newspapers, which cover Willows and Orland, California. But he said he resigned after the vice president sided with law enforcement in a story he wrote about how the county sheriff was questionably distributing concealed carry permits.
That's when he decided to start the Mirror.
"The reason I’m here is that I don’t like to be run out of a place," Crews said. "I didn't want these guys to run me out of town."
The first issue of the Mirror came out on Christmas Eve of 1991 and was produced in a spare building in Artois, California. His first wife had just left him and, with only $50 and a borrowed phone to his name, Crews started publishing the newspaper twice a week with one goal in mind: hold the powerful accountable.
The two other full-time employees at the Mirror joined Crews within the first few years of its existence. Donna Settle, the newspaper publisher's spouse of 26 years, originally met Crews shortly after he started the Mirror. He was renting office space at the local timber company she worked at as a secretary, and when she lost her job amid tightening environmental regulations, Crews offered her one.
"I was always an accountant. I wasn’t familiar with the newspaper industry at all," said Settle, who is an editor at the Mirror. "We just hit it off."
Judkins joined in December 1994 after working at motels as a night auditor and as an Atheist activist in Northern California. When a local radio show effectively banned him for being too brazen about the separation of church and state, Crews asked him to write an Atheism column for the Mirror. He's worked there ever since.
"So far as small papers are concerned, we’re a little unusual," Judkins said. "When people run out of other options, they often come to us with the hopes that maybe a little light — a little public exposure — will help whatever problems that they may have."
'It does get people talking'
“If we don’t report it, who will?”
That's the question at the top of each copy of the Mirror, which has a surprising amount of influence in a town of a little more than 6,000 people. But not all the hype is positive.
While many Willows townspeople read and praise the newspaper religiously, others say they wouldn’t pay a dime for it. They say it’s a scandal rag.
"He’s a newspaper guy — his job is to stir up things and sell newspapers, which he does very well here, for better or for worse, depending on which side you’re on," said Dwayne Stewart, district attorney of Glenn County. "It does get people talking, that’s for sure. Nobody will admit to reading it, but everybody seems to know what he writes."
And as the largest newspaper in a county of nearly 28,000 people — with a circulation of more than 2,700 and a fiercely loyal readership — it's easy to see how the Mirror is often the first and last word on local happenings. The newspaper prints every booking, animal control call and police log in the county. The nearby Chico Enterprise-Record doesn't report as much as it used to on Glenn County, where nearly 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Mirror has one of the only Atheist columns in the country, and it doesn't charge for wedding photos or obituaries.
Plus, a newspaper subscription only costs between $60 and $90 a year, depending on whether you're a senior and live in the county.
"That kind of stuff that newspapers in the past always did, we still do. But on the other hand, we’re very much an investigative organ," Crews said. “People want to know what’s going on.”
Crews is no exception. He has used the California Public Records and California Open Meetings acts to write stories about officials allegedly using county resources for vacations and political campaigns, expensive remodels of government buildings that were already set to close and lagging efforts to build a soccer field for Latino residents — who make up about about 40 percent of Glenn County, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. And, despite the fact that his paper rarely breaks even and Crews himself makes only about $20,000 a year, he frequently goes to court to fight for his right to access.
In 2013, Crews filed an open records request to see the emails of the then-superintendent of the Willows Unified School District. When the district released some but not all emails, Crews sued — a case that was not only dismissed and ruled in favor of WUSD's decision to withhold certain records, but also called "frivolous" by the judge, who ordered Crews to pay the district's legal fees. The latter judgment was rejected on appeal.
"That was an interesting struggle, but it made good law for people in California who want to review those emails," Crews said.
Despite the lawsuit, current WUSD Superintendent Mort Geivett said he has a good working relationship with the publisher of the Mirror, which he reads twice a week.
"I think that we respect each other," Geivett said. "He kind of latches onto something and he takes it from beginning to end.”
Rebele, former owner of the Paradise Post — where Crews worked as a reporter in the 1980s — said he gave the newspaper publisher money for the case against the Willows school district, which he said made his "blood curdle."
"He’s really done a wonderful job of showing people what a newspaper can do when it really covers the news, and really goes beyond just covering the news — when it finds foul play or a lack of public access," Rebele said. "That's the kind of thing Tim does.”
The ardent newspaper publisher is almost a magnet for what he calls "interesting struggles." In addition to waging press freedom lawsuits, Crews has successfully fought subpoenas for his reporting notes and written stories about local officials that later prompted California Department of Justice investigations. Settle said that Crews rarely sleeps, and when he does, it's with the police scanner on in the background and the persistent knowledge that if an accident happens, he's getting up and going to it.
Not bad for a 73-year-old who usually puts in 70-hour weeks.
"He manages to keep everything straight all the time even though he’ll be working on a dozen different things at once," Judkins said. "I’m constantly amazed at how he does it."
While Crews is frequently lauded for his work as a community watchdog, he has also made enemies. Settle said that especially when Crews publishes crime stories that make townspeople look bad, they openly ostracize or criticize him.
"How often do you have to report people’s wrongdoing of some type that you may go to a party or local function, and then there they are?" she said. "People who get in trouble get irritated with him, but frankly everyone else around here loves him."
'We know someone is watching'
Crews has no website. He doesn't tweet, isn't concerned about growing his digital audience and says the migration of newspapers to the internet is "ruinous."
What he does have is a desire to seek out and report the truth, a record of improving his community and a substantial network of people who support him. And it's not limited to his mostly senior audience or old newspaper pals.
In 1985, Rebele — who is also the former president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association — created a scholarship fund with his alma mater Stanford University to set students up with summer internships in journalism. Now the program awards 30-50 internships per year, and while Rebele has sent aspiring journalists to a variety of news organizations — from the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg, to the Palo Alto Weekly and Seattle Times — he said the Mirror is unparalleled in the experience it gives interns.
"Tim Crews has been probably our most successful mentor of interns when he takes one. All those interns come out of that experience with Tim just raving because they learn so much about public records and how to get access to meetings," he said. "In its own way, and for its own community, Tim Crews has done the same thing (as big newspapers). It's just that Tim's reach is not as great as the L.A. Times’ reach is."
Interns who have previously worked at the Mirror gush in a promotional pamphlet that's titled "The Best Darn Journalism Internship in California?" and starts with "... if you're not serious about journalism and hearing about what is arguably the best hands-on, blood and guts newspaper summer internship in California, then don't waste your time reading any further." Students say things like "It was, hands down, the most valuable summer of my life" and "If not for Tim Crews, I would probably not be a journalist right now." The flier is 15 pages long.
"If you are an aspiring journalist, or you know one who would like to consider a career, they could do a lot worse than being an intern at Tim's paper," Rebele said.
Beyond instilling his stubborn knack for reporting in aspiring young reporters, Crews has won several awards for his work at the Mirror. In 2009 he was named Newspaper Executive of the Year by the California Press Foundation, which called the small-town operation "California's most courageous newspaper." He has also won the California Society of Newspaper Editors’ Bill Farr Award, the 2013 California Newspaper Publishers Association Freedom of Information Award and the Hofstra University Francis Frost Wood Award for Courage in Journalism.
The fancy accolades are nice, but the ornery newspaper publisher sees himself a little differently — especially in the Willows and Orland communities.
"While Crews is seen by some as curmudgeon in high dudgeon, he is simply a cranky country publisher," reads the bio he sends to people, including Poynter.
As county D.A., Stewart definitely leans more toward the curmudgeon epithet. He said the Mirror's reporting is almost never fair and balanced, often omitting facts that don't fit into a larger narrative.
"He tends to leave out the boring stuff, which the boring stuff gives perspective on certain issues," Stewart said. "We spend an inordinate amount of time replying to his nonsense requests. If I had the time I spend responding to his requests responding to cases, we would get a lot more done."
Stewart isn't the only one who thinks of Crews as an overly fervent ideologue. Glenn County Sheriff Richard Warren said that while the publisher's reporting isn't always 100 percent accurate and often contains a good bit of opinion, Crews truly believes in the work he does — and it has an influential effect on the community.
"I think that sometimes he does not do his due diligence in truly investigating and being certain about everything," Warren said. "(But) he’s done a very good job at taking a very small newspaper and making it relevant and prevalent in our local community."
As a government official, Warren said the Mirror's reporting sometimes makes his job harder. He's been the subject of negative articles, some of which he said were more like editorials than objective news stories. Crews once even wrote more than 25 articles in a series on the death of a local man in a fire, an incident he said wasn't properly investigated by the county sheriff, according to the Chico News & Review.
"He has made it very difficult sometimes for government to operate, but he has also held government accountable, too," Warren said. "I think we do a lot better job on some things in this county because we know someone is watching and know someone will hold us accountable."
Crews’ investigations haven't won him a Pulitzer Prize. He doesn't have millions of subscribers, pageviews or dollars. Townspeople in Willows and Orland constantly read his work, but some would be hard-pressed to admit to it. The Mirror isn't The New York Times — but for Crews, his scrappy little newspaper in the middle of rural Northern California might as well be.
"If you want to know what’s going on in Iraq, this is not the place to look," he said. "People in small towns deserve A1 journalism the same as everybody else."