Virginia Cowenhoven, 42, represents the fifth generation at the helm of The Bakersfield Californian, the newspaper that has been in her family since her great-great grandfather Alfred Harrell purchased the Daily Californian in 1897. (Its roots run back to the Havilah Courier, founded in 1866.) She became associate publisher in December 2014.
What do you do every day in your job as the associate publisher of The Bakersfield Californian? I am the active publisher. Ginger (Cowenhoven’s mother, Virginia, 72) is still publisher and chairman of the board.
What don’t I do? It depends on what happens that day. I provide supportive leadership; I support the CEO (Michelle Chantry) directly. The family provides the vision, the direction, the strategy, and then I take it to the paper’s leadership team. I’m also on the editorial board. (Cowenhoven, her mother and brother Garret Peter, 41, serve on the board of directors along with one non-family member. Her sister, Tracey, works for the family foundation and has no involvement with the paper.)
You had ideas about expanding outreach via smart phone at the time you were promoted to associate publisher. Have those goals been met and what is new on the tech horizon for the paper? We moved forward with apps, moved forward with video; 2017 is the year of video, as 2016 was the year of mobile. Now it’s audio we’re looking at. You just continually look at that strategic planning.
At the same time, we’re always looking to find the balance of the legacy and the brand and what that means with new platforms.
I’m very grateful I went to business school when I did. I went to an executive MBA program at Pepperdine (University, from which she expects to graduate in April). I use that experience every day at work. Everything has to have a business plan. My final project is applied to this company.
With your family’s long history in the Bakersfield area, the idea of community engagement might be old hat, but what are your techniques for staying in touch with your readers?
This is something I look at every day. There’s a quote from my great-great-grandfather where he’s speaking at a public event in the 1920s:
“I have said that the business of publishing a newspaper is an industrial enterprise, but more and more with the passing of the years I like to consider the Californian something else beside. I like to consider it as an institution in Bakersfield and Kern County, an institution whose activities are closely linked with the activities of the community itself, and it is my ambition to so utilize the publicity controlled by me as to advance the interest and well-being of the city which I have called home for the major part of
my life, and where I expect to spend the remainder of my days.”
Today there are lots of start-ups where the founding mission statements don’t apply five years later, but that betterment-of-the-community mission still applies here. As long as we’re bettering the community it creates engagement. (And in particular) the opinion section gets the most engagement or conversation, on topics local or national.
What did you learn about family media businesses at the recent Inland/SNPA conference, “Family Owners and Next Generation Leadership”? You shared the panel with Emily Walsh of Sarasota, Fla.-based Observer Media Group and Brian Jarvis of NCWV Media in Clarksburg, W.Va.
Emily’s family purchased that company in 1994. (Observer Media Group publishes the East County Observer, Longboat Observer, Sarasota Observer, Siesta Key Observer, Season magazine, LWR Life magazine and YourObserver.com.) I liked the growth she showed, and the company’s hyperlocal focus.
It was interesting because Brian has owned (the media company, which includes produces six newspapers and one magazine in north central West Virginia) for five years, and he has completely different challenges. But it was refreshing to see how he could go in and change things so quickly. I see I could do some of that with this 150-year-old company. I learned from him how quickly media companies can move.
When your mother was named publisher of the year by Editor & Publisher in 2003, she said in the accompanying article that she wasn’t sure her children would follow in her footsteps, yet here you are. Any other family members in the pipeline?
There is a sixth generation, and she is two. It’s my brother’s little girl, Grace. Our family works very closely on estate planning and succession planning. In fact, at Inland conferences there are great family business consultants. If she wants to be involved, she can be. It will be up to her, as it was to us. I grew up in New England and I went to college in Connecticut and worked in Boston…I never thought I would live in Bakersfield!
Interview by Maureen M. Hart