As the announcement of the 2018 Pulitzer Prizes continued on a muted TV in the background, the staff of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat prepared for a toast.
“Every single one of you deserves the credit for what you did, not only for our community but for your own profession,” he said. “So, just on behalf of all of the local owners that are just going to be ecstatic, and I’m gonna tell them, ‘I told you so …’”
“And I’m going to tell them we need more reporters,” executive editor Catherine Barnett said, drawing applause and cheers from her staff.
“I’m going to tell them, ‘I knew you did this for a good reason,’” Falk continued. “And this is the reason.”
Nearly six years ago, a group of local business people bought the Sonoma County newspaper from Halifax Media. That company and its 27 remaining newspapers was purchased by the investment group that owns GateHouse Media in 2015.
While Gannett’s USA Today Network took home several Pulitzers this year, corporate newspaper owners, including Gannett, GateHouse, Digital First Media and McClatchy, get a lot more attention for shrinking newsrooms.
Local ownership doesn’t ensure survival and it doesn’t ensure Pulitzers. But, when local owners combine a commitment to local journalism with sharp business skills, it can mean that when major news breaks, local newspapers actually have the staff to cover it.
‘They have never told me what to do’
The Press Democrat started publishing in 1857 as the Sonoma Democrat.
In 2012, it was sold along with the Petaluma Argus-Courier and the North Bay Business Journal to Sonoma Media Investments. The Press Democrat reported on its new owners:
They include lobbyist and Sonoma-based developer Darius Anderson; Bill Hooper, who heads Anderson's development firm, Kenwood Investments, and will be chief operating officer; former North Coast congressman Doug Bosco of Santa Rosa, who will becomes the paper's general counsel; and Steve Falk, a former San Francisco Chronicle publisher who is chief executive officer of the investment group.
It also was revealed that six local investors proved crucial in making the deal a reality. Among them are some of the region's most influential names, including Jeannie Schulz, wife of the late Charles M. Schulz, whose Peanuts comic strip empire was built on newspapers, and Norma Person, whose late husband Evert Person sold The Press Democrat to the New York Times in 1985.
Santa Rosa’s alt-weekly, the Bohemian, speculated on the possible conflicts that could arise from the new owners.
“Let me be clear,” Gabe Meline wrote at the time. “I think local ownership of the daily paper of record is a good thing … You buy a newspaper in 2012 to gain influence. Remember that when you read the Press Democrat from now on.”
“That was clearly my worry when the owners are also newsmakers,” said Barnett, the executive editor.
Santa Rosa is Barnett’s hometown, and she started at the paper as an intern. She remembers going to the ATM one day before the news of the new owners broke and running into one of the buyers. She came back to a news meeting where three of the new owners were going to make news the next day.
This is a different ballgame, she thought then.
“I can honestly say, despite the conspiracy theories, that they have never told me what to do,” she said. “And I don’t think they would. I think people see that over time.”
The promise of independence has largely proved true, said Meline, who still lives in Santa Rosa and now works for KQED.
"One example was when a local supervisor got caught with his pants down (literally) in a peeping-tom scandal," he said. "They covered it heavily, even though (owner Doug) Bosco was his mentor."
It's easy to see which stories are running that appear to be in opposition to the owner's interests, he added. "It's not easy to see which stories may be overlooked or not greenlit due to self-censorship or hesitation at what the ownership may think."
They didn't cut us
In 2012, the newsroom had 66 full-time employees. It now has 60, Falk said.
That year, "both the Press Democrat and weekly Petaluma Argus-Courier had full-time reporters covering Petaluma. Today the Petaluma reporters share content across products when it makes sense rather than duplicating efforts,” Falk said. “Our total journalists for all products is now 70 with six open positions for a total of 76, which is about the same as 2012.”
In 2014, then-staffer Derek Moore wrote for the Pacific Media Workers Guild about the new owners and union negotiations. It hadn’t been perfect, he wrote.
“But under SMI, there is renewed optimism that the PD will survive into the future and that we’ll be able to continue doing what we love."
That's still true, said Moore, who left the paper last year for a job in Napa, where he lives. He's still guild president and now works for the guild, and he freelanced for the Press Democrat during the fires and contributed to their Pulitzer-winning work.
"To me, it was a striking juxtaposition," Moore said.
The newsroom is now smaller than when managing editor Ted Appel first came in 1993, and they have had a few layoffs in that time. He couldn’t remember the newsroom size from the '90s, but the losses have mostly come through attrition, he said.
The Petaluma and Mendocino County bureaus also no longer exist, Moore added.
Still, he said, by any measure, the Press Democrat's owners have done an extraordinary job maintaining standards of the newspaper "that the community needs and deserves."
Staff size isn’t the only number worth mentioning here.
The Press Democrat now holds events, which brought in $1 million in revenue last year, Falk said. It doubled digital-only subscriptions in the past year to 6,000. It produces 15 newsletters and a regional magazine that comes out six times a year, hosts a wine competition, and has launched a Spanish-language site and monthly print publication.
The company has shifted 38 percent of its revenue into circulation and readership. And by the third quarter of this year, the paper’s debt to those local owners will be paid off, Falk said.
When local investors bought the Press Democrat, the goal was always to produce local journalism, he said. They don’t report to Wall Street and they don’t report to corporate headquarters. You can’t be a public company in a no-growth business, he said.
“From the newsroom’s perspective, what made it work is they purchased the paper and made a commitment to keep it a viable news organization,” Appel said. “They didn’t cut us. They invested in news.”
‘This is a validation of our business model’
The Friday after the Pulitzer win, Falk gave another speech at a staff party.
He said, again, that the win was one they shared, and that it came in service to the community.
“But I also said ‘this Pulitzer is a validation of our business model,’” he said. “It’s a validation of why local folks were willing to write checks to return this newspaper to local ownership.”
It’s a message he hopes resonates not just at home, but to other cities and newspapers. And it has.
The Press Democrat was an example for local buyers of Massachusetts’ Berkshire Eagle. One of those owners, Hans Morris, visited Santa Rosa and learned from them what was possible and what was problematic in the local newsroom business.
In 2016, Morris and other local investors bought the Eagle and three Vermont newspapers from Digital First Media. They’ve added 50 jobs in that time, said publisher Fred Rutberg, including replacing jobs that the chain consolidated such as design, finance and a call center.
“In my view, you can’t cut your way to a successful business model,” Morris said. “However, it’s not a panacea. You need to create a successful, thriving, economically profitable company, otherwise it won’t be there in 50 years, regardless of what the new owners think.”
Last week, Falk got an email from Morris.
“I know I am late in telling you this,” he wrote, “but I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to learn about your Pulitzer Prize last week. You both remain our heroes at the Berkshire Eagle, and we are truly thankful for the advice you gave us as we considered buying the paper from DFM.”
In the past two years, he continued, they’d learned a lot about how tough the newspaper business is.
“But we also have learned how gratified a community is when you dramatically improve the quality of the content, and the Press Democrat is a role model for us.”
‘… It feels tenuous’
A few weeks after its win, the Press Democrat still has a Pulitzer glow, Barnett said, but “we are tested every single day.”
For 20 days, they covered the fires that destroyed 5,300 homes and took 24 lives in Sonoma County. They all feel the pressure, she said, to do the kind of accountability journalism that has to come next. And, like she said on the day they won, they could use more staff.
Covering what comes next, and finding the resources for it, is tougher than breaking news, Barnett said.
“This is going to change our community in ways we don’t even understand.”
It’s great to have what, compared to so many other local newsrooms, is a healthy paper. (I counted 24 on the news staff, five on features, four on sports, a digital team of six and six on photo. The staff site is missing the names of several digital producers and copy editors, Falk said.)
“… But in the landscape of our industry, some days it feels tenuous,” she said.
Despite that, one thing she takes seriously is the Press Democrat’s role in the community.
“We’ve all been in towns where the newspaper is a joke, and that’s because it has been gutted by its corporate owners," she said. "And that’s sad.”
Staff has been mindful, in recent celebrations, of what their community lost.
“And yet I can’t tell you how many people who lost everything were texting me saying ‘We’re so proud.’”