Small-town politics hinges on community newspaper's power

North Coast Journal

A civic dispute in Ferndale, Calif., turns in part on a question of how much power its newspaper wields. That's because the editor of the Ferndale Enterprise is married to the former manager of the Humboldt County Fair, whom boardmembers say they ousted in part because they were dismayed by coverage in the Enterprise.

Ryan Burns' long piece about the dustup delves into the everyday gothic character of small-town life, places where, as Miranda Lambert once noted, everybody dies famous.

Caroline Titus with her car next to the Enterprise offices, in a photo she provided Poynter in 2010.

Caroline Titus edits the Enterprise, whose coverage of fair-board affairs has been "withering," Burns writes.

Her stories have doggedly chronicled the board’s every Brown Act violation; she has analyzed the agency’s finances, policies and procedures, including the incestuous process for selecting new members; and she has demanded access to public meetings and records.

Her husband, Stuart, told boardmembers he didn't influence Caroline's work. Burns says that "from a reporter’s perspective, the little town of Ferndale is the gift that keeps on giving" and that the Titus' relationship has given some townspeople heartburn before:

Still, there’s a potentially awkward, some might say inappropriate dynamic at play when the woman running a small-town newspaper is married to a man in power in the same town. In addition to Stuart Titus’ 22 years as fair manager, he also served as mayor once before, from 1994-1996, and he just finished eight years on the City Council. The Tituses have been accused of abusing the privileges afforded by their relationship.

Burns makes the case that if Caroline Titus is crossing lines, they're boundaries of unspoken small-town civility rather than ethics: “None of us look good if our story is objectively presented to the public,” Enterprise columnist Wendy Lestina tells him. “Ferndale people are not used to that because they never had a real journalist before.”

I reached Titus by phone as she delivered this week's edition of the Enterprise, which she said fronted a story about a fair-board member berating her for taking photos during a meeting.

"It's not my dream situation," she said of being part of the stories she covers. "But the reality of a 1,500-circulation newspaper in a remote California town is in order to keep it going I am literally a one-woman newspaper. So I don’t have the luxury of paying another reporter."

"I am accountable every Thursday morning" as soon as the paper hits stands, she said. "I don’t get to go to some office and spew stuff on the Internet and not have to face the people I’m writing about." 40 percent of the Enterprise's circulation is copies mailed outside the area, Titus said.

Titus said her husband has time to help her now (her daughter Elizabeth works at Politico and will not return to the family business right now, she said). The Enterprise is planning to expand to nearby Fortuna, whose paper got "gobbled up" by The (Eureka, Calif.) Times-Standard. "There is a void left behind in a neighboring town that needs coverage," she said.

Previously: Small-Town Publisher Discovers Twitter’s Value in Covering California Earthquake

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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