Rollie column

Rollie Atkinson

The beginning of this story about this local newspaper has only been told to a few people. In 1995, the Walnut Creek-based corporation that owned this and three other local newspapers decided to shut them all down after failing to find a new corporate buyer. But, instead of abandoning the papers, the corporation accepted two separate offers from two families to each purchase half of the four papers. The Atkinson and Mays households formed Sonoma West Publishers and bought The Sebastopol Times & News and Russian River News and merged them together as Sonoma West Times & News. Tom and Beverly Reeves and their children bought The Healdsburg Tribune and The Windsor Times on the very same day as the Sonoma West transaction (May 30, 1995.) The newspapers were not only saved but they were put in the hands of experienced and dedicated newspaper people.

During five years of separate ownership, from 1995 to 2000, the local community newspapers gradually improved their coverage of local news. The local owners became involved in the local communities as local employers, chamber of commerce and Rotary club members, school parents and, most importantly, as ethical and hard-working journalists. It was Tom Reeves who put the motto on his paper’s masthead that is still in place today: “To build a better world, start in your own community.”

Tom fell ill in 2000 and approached the families of Sonoma West Publishers to buy his newspapers and continue to publish them as he might have wished. With immeasurable gratitude to the Reeves family, that has been a guiding principle ever since.

In the 25 years since the newspapers’ ownership was returned to local families, there has never been any extra money or real profits to speak of. Any modest profits made over the past 25 years have always been re-invested into the newspaper for new equipment, employee health insurance, small wage increases and lots of donations to local community groups. Advertising rates were kept as low as possible so the smallest of local businesses could afford to promote themselves.

The small, but mighty, newspapers have survived and have served their local communities in many essential capacities. We have put a spotlight on each year’s proud graduating class from the local high school. Little League and youth soccer scores and team photos have received special placement. The local garden club and historical society activities have been treated as big news. Our reporters have spent many late hours at school board, hospital district and city council meetings, keeping our elected officials honest and accountable.

In 2013, Sonoma West Publishers purchased the Cloverdale Reveille from the Hanchett family, who had sought to keep the paper under local, independent ownership.

Two years ago we launched a direct public offer and acquired 147 community “owners” who invested $400,000 to support local journalism and local news. That support has helped us to replace the advertising revenues that newspapers across America are losing to Internet giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon.

The business model that was in place in 1995 is no longer working. In the last decade one of every four newspapers in America has died. Thousands of hometowns that thought they would always have a newspaper to call their own are now faced with no local news, no local sports and school coverage, no watchdogs at city hall and no journalists to fact-check all the rumors and misinformation on social media. These places are called “news deserts.”

In 1995, three families very quietly saved the local newspapers in Sebastopol, Windsor and Healdsburg. As a new business model is now being erected and as the loss of newspapers is also threatening our democracy, it will take many more than just three families to keep this story going forward and to make some news of our own.

To be continued…

— Rollie Atkinson

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