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Argus-Courier returns to local ownership

Published: Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 4:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 4:17 p.m.

The Petaluma Argus-Courier, one of the oldest businesses in town, was returned to local ownership for the first time in decades last week when it was purchased by Sonoma Media Investments, a new company comprised of local, influential investors.

The sale was announced on Thursday, Nov. 8 during an emotional meeting with employees of the Argus-Courier, Press Democrat and North Bay Business Journal. All three publications were sold to Sonoma Media by the Florida-based company Halifax Media, which had in turn purchased the companies from the New York Times Co. less than a year earlier.

Bruce Kyse, publisher of the Press Democrat Media group, which includes the Argus-Courier, described the purchase as a “historic moment.”

He added that he thought the new ownership presented the best chance for the publications to survive and even grow despite a challenging business climate for newspapers.

Darius Anderson, the longtime Sonoma County resident, influential Sacramento lobbyist and developer who brokered the sale, fought back tears as he spoke of personal ties to the Press Democrat that stretched back to his parents’ friendship with the former publisher. He expressed a desire to not only restore the publications to local ownership, but to make them some of the best community newspapers in the country.

Anderson formed Sonoma Media to purchase the Sonoma Index-Tribune and Sonoma Magazine in April 2012. He told reporters in a press conference on Nov. 8 that he saw an opportunity to further expand local ownership of Sonoma County media when the New York Times announced it was selling its North Bay publications to Halifax Media, which seemed to be most focused on expanding its holdings in the Southeast.

He added that he envisioned combining the Index-Tribune and Sonoma Magazine with the Argus-Courier, Press Democrat and Business Journal as a way to “increase the footprint” of the Sonoma County media market.

For the Argus-Courier, whose roots reach back to 1855, the purchase signifies the paper’s return to local ownership for the first time since it was sold by the Olmsted family to Scripps League Newspapers in 1965.

“We’re very excited to see the Argus-Courier and Press Democrat returned to local ownership, especially since all of the owners are civic-minded and are truly committed to ensuring the continuance of quality local journalism,” said John Burns, editor and publisher of the Argus-Courier on Tuesday. “It’s a big win for Petaluma and Sonoma County.”

Anderson and Steve Falk — the former San Francisco Chronicle publisher who is now the CEO of Sonoma Media — expressed a clear intent to continue to support the Argus-Courier’s local coverage.

“From a journalistic perspective, it’s crucial we maintain a local focus,” Falk said. “We’re not going to fix anything that’s not broken.”

Falk added that he hopes the acquisition will provide the smaller community newspapers in the group, including the Argus-Courier and the twice-weekly Index-Tribune, with more tools as a result of sharing resources among the publications.

“Bruce (Kyse) has done a great job of protecting the Argus-Courier and the Business Journal,” Falk said, adding that he believed the Index-Tribune could be assimilated in a similar way. “Instead of being competitive, they’ll be complimentary.”

The new owners also emphasized that they will continue to invest in digital innovation.

Kyse confirmed at the press conference that the company will be looking seriously at implementing a system to charge for reading articles online, something the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier had been moving toward before the New York Times sold the publications to Halifax.

The four principal investors, along with six other well-known Sonoma County residents who backed the deal, all have a powerful presence in the county, but the new leadership was adamant that it would not “meddle” in the newsroom.

“I want to win awards,” Anderson said. “We want great journalists in the newsroom.” Anderson and Bosco acknowledged that they have both been the subjects of critical news articles in the past but have still managed to maintain a good relationship with and respect for the media.

The principal investors in the sale include Anderson, Falk, former North Coast congressman Doug Bosco, who will serve as general counsel, and head of Anderson’s development firm Bill Hooper. Falk is relocating from San Francisco to Sonoma County and resigning from his role as CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce in order to serve as head of the new company. The community investors will form an advisory board that will meet regularly to review the business performance of the new media group.

Additional investors in the new company include:

n Gary Nelson of Sonoma, founder and retired chairman of the Nelson Family of Companies. The successful company, founded in Sonoma, has provided staffing and recruiting to Bay Area businesses for more than 40 years. He will be joining the Sonoma Media Investments management team.

n Bill Jasper of Sonoma, retired CEO and president of Dolby Laboratories, Inc.

n Norma Person of Santa Rosa, president of the Ernest L. and Ruth W. Finley Foundation and widow of Evert Person, a former publisher of the Press Democrat who sold the publication to the New York Times in 1985.

n Jean Schulz of Santa Rosa, widow of Charles Schulz, who created the Peanuts comic strip. She has supported the Green Music Center, the Sonoma Land Trust, and other local causes, and co-founded the Community Foundation of Sonoma County, which manages hundreds of charitable funds to support local causes.

n Les Vadasz of Sonoma, a co-founder and former board member of Intel Corporation. He and his wife Judy founded the Vadasz Family Foundation, which has contributed significantly to the Green Music Center, as well as other nonprofits around the county.

n Sandy Weill of Sonoma, retired CEO and chairman of Citigroup with a long career in finance and history of philanthropy. He is a major benefactor of Weill Hall at Sonoma State University.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com)

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