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COURSEY: For PD employees, a sigh of relief

Published: Friday, November 9, 2012 at 12:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 9, 2012 at 12:22 p.m.

As a freelance contractor, I don't work in the Press Democrat newsroom any more. But in the five years since I left daily journalism I thought I had been able to keep pretty close tabs on the mood and the pulse of my former workplace.

On Thursday, I found out I was wrong.

The meeting to introduce employees to the new owners of the PD was a revelation to me, and not because I didn't know the new owners — some of them are very familiar faces around these parts. What surprised me was the reception given to them by my former co-workers.

For background, you should know this: Journalists are a tough crowd. We're taught from a young age that “there's no cheering in the press box” — in other words, we are on hand to observe, not to take sides.

But the crowd that gathered in the Glaser Center at the Unitarian Universalist Church just down the street from the newspaper erupted in applause on Thursday afternoon when Publisher Bruce Kyse announced that local investors had closed the deal to buy the paper. And this wasn't the polite, bored applause of jaded newspaper reporters. It was sustained, boisterous applause that oozed with a sense of relief and, yes, even jubilation.

To be fair, it wasn't all journalists in the crowd. Employees were invited to bring their spouses, and the families and some friends of some of the investors were on hand, too. But that's part of why the mood was so celebratory. The PD, a family-owned newspaper for most of its history, is once again part of a family. Several families.

Local families.

That sounds corny, I know, and as I continue writing this I also know I run the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, which is not my nature. But as I sat in that big room on Thursday, I realized something that I had missed in the nearly 11 months since the newspaper's old owner, The New York Times Co., sold the PD to its new owner, Halifax Media Group. I knew there was disgruntlement and dismay about the direction that Halifax had taken employee relations and other aspects of the newspaper, but I didn't understand how much fear and uncertainty had permeated the place as it became clear that Halifax had no intention of keeping the PD in its stable of publications.

On Thursday, those pent-up emotions were released in the cheers that greeted Kyse's announcement. Outsiders may be skeptical about the motives of the investors who now own their local newspaper, but they should understand this: The people who work at that newspaper are happy about this deal.

And that's not just because Darius Anderson, wearing a sport coat and blue jeans, used his first moments as the new principal owner to announce, “The (Halifax-imposed) dress code is dead.”

And it's not just because Kyse told his overworked staff that the new ownership has approved filling 10 positions that have been left open during these months of uncertainty.

In fact, the employees' approval comes despite some cost to those same employees. Anderson announced that The Newspaper Guild, the largest union at the PD, had approved a contract with the new owners on Thursday morning, the last remaining detail before the sale was final. The new pact includes significant financial concessions from employees offset by some job security guarantees from the new owners. It is a sign of the desperate times in the news business that this contract was approved by a unanimous vote. It also is a sign of trust in the new ownership.

Is that trust deserved? The employees, and the readers, will wait and see.

Anderson is best known as a prolific Democratic fund-raiser and lobbyist, which is part of the reason skeptics look askance at this new ownership. But it was hard to be skeptical as he fought back tears on Thursday, introducing his wife and son and his parents and talking about how Santa Rosa has been key to his success in life.

He addressed the skepticism head-on, acknowledging his position as “a newsmaker,” but promising not to intervene in news coverage — even if it involves something he's doing.

“I wouldn't be so stupid as to meddle in the newsroom,” Anderson said. “Because that would destroy the investment.”

Doug Bosco, the former North Coast congressman who was introduced as the paper's new legal counsel, also addressed the “motivation” of the new owners. He said when he first heard the paper had been sold to the Florida-based Halifax group, “I felt sick.”

“I have nothing against Halifax; I knew nothing about them — but that was the point,” said Bosco. Local ownership, he said, will “return this great institution to its roots.”

Other investors in the deal include Jeannie Schulz, whose husband Charles Schulz's “Peanuts” comic strip still appears daily in the paper more than 12 years after his death, and Norma Person, whose late husband Evert Person was owner and publisher of the paper before he sold it to the Times in 1985. It is notable that Bosco now lives in the McDonald Avenue home formerly occupied by the Persons, and before that by the Finleys, whose ownership of the Press Democrats dates back to 1897.

This all generates some good feelings about a home-town institution coming back into the home-town fold. But whether those good feelings can be sustained depends upon how well the new owners are perceived to be keeping their pledge to keep their hands off the newsroom, and, frankly, how well the business performs on the bottom line.

That part wasn't ignored on Thursday. The new owners weren't shy in expressing their expectations to make a return on their investment. Newspapers don't make as much money as they used to, but they still are business enterprises that exist to generate profit.

That's part of the motivation, too.

(Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.)

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