Fewer than 500 people lived in the trading post settlement of Sebastopol in 1889 when the first edition of The Sebastopol Times was published. Just a few years later, with the arrival of the North West Pacific Railroad, the town’s population doubled, with new schools, churches, hotels and even an opera house. In 1902, The Sebastopol Times was the leading voice to favor the official incorporation and the formation of a municipal government. Just four years later, most of the expanding city lay in rubble in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake of 1906 that also destroyed San Francisco and much of nearby Santa Rosa. The city quickly rebuilt and became one of Sonoma County’s most important market centers surrounded by rich timber and agricultural lands. By 1910, Sebastopol’s population was 2,000.
The news has kept up a hectic and lively pace ever since, leading up to this year, 130 years later, where the descendant of the original Sebastopol Times continues to publish every week, including last week in the midst of wildfires and a major power outage. This issue of Sonoma West Times & News is Vol. 130, No. 45. That’s something like 6,750 editions, published during two world wars, numerous floods, cantankerous elections, Apple Blossom festivals, Analy graduations, summer droughts, new one-way streets, old landmark losses, championship prep sports teams, weekly Hallberg weather reports, downtown summer sidewalk sales and photographed faces from three different centuries.
As the central marketplace for most of west Sonoma County, the Sebastopol-based newspapers also have reported the news for neighboring communities along the Russian River and to the coast at Bodega Bay and Jenner. The first newspaper in 1889 was a single sheet printed on a hand-cranked letterpress, and this week’s edition was produced with computers, the internet, smartphones and a few thousand kilobytes.
Thomas Beacon was the founder in 1889 of The Sebastopol Times. In 1890 he was joined by editor D.L. Cobb and publisher W.W. Jones. In its earliest years, Sebastopol also was served briefly by the Analy Standard and The Sonoma County News.
In 1895, H.H. Granice, owner of the Sonoma Index Tribune, of Sonoma Valley, bought the Sebastopol paper and placed J.P. McDonell as editor. Granice’s partner was publisher J.W. Brackett. McDonell became the owner and championed incorporation of Sebastopol in 1902. His great-grandson, Mark McDonnell and family still reside in the city. Other editors and publishers that followed included E.S. Fife, Morris Crockett, Cecil Burroughs and Harry M. Lutgens.
One of the longest serving owner-editors was Perry T. Allison who owned the Santa Rosa Republican and purchased The Sebastopol Times on Sept. 9, 1921. He owned the paper until 1940.
Ben C. Cober, of Ukiah, bought the local paper in 1941 but sold it in 1944 to printers Harlan Hoyt and Elmer O. Carlson. The team moved the newspaper offices and press operation to 115 S. Main Street (K&L Bistro) where it remained for 44 years.
Allison served as a “town father” figure and was prominent in the Rotary Club of Sebastopol leadership for many years. Hoyt and Carlson were more printers than journalists and operated a successful commercial printing operation and the publication of a second newspaper, The Guerneville Times.
None of the Sebastopol editors or publishers were more colorful or flamboyant that the long and tall Texan, Ernest Joiner.
Joiner owned the newspaper three different times. He first bought it on July 1, 1961 from Hoyt and Carlson. Joiner sold The Sebastopol Times to his editor Bill Johnson in 1972. Johnson failed as a publisher, and Joiner had to buy the paper back in 1975 with partner Mack Montanye. The editor was Dave Mitchell, who later won a Pulitzer Prize at the small Pt. Reyes Light newspaper in western Marin County.
Joiner built a crusty reputation for the enemies he made and tormented.
“If it hadn’t been for my enemies, I never would have made a damn … I owe them to this day and I’ve got a lot of them,” Joiner said in an interview with Sonoma West Times & News in 1997.
Joiner picked many fights with Sebastopol’s elected officials, once suing them for violating the state’s open meeting laws and winning a landmark court decision that is still cited today in court cases.
The Sebastopol Times changed hands frequently during the 1980s and 1990s. A second news weekly, the West County News was started in Sebastopol and published for two years by John and Jayne Burns and partners.
For a brief period, The Sebastopol Times was owned by partners from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Evert Person and John H.K. Riley. From 1986 to 1995, Lesher Communications, based in Walnut Creek, owned the local newspaper. At the time Lesher also owned the Russian River News, Bodega Bay Signal, The Healdsburg Tribune, Windsor Times and two local weeklies based in Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Lesher also bought the Burns’ newspaper.
On June 1, 1995, Lesher Communications sold the Russian River News and Sebastopol Times & News to Rollie Atkinson and wife Sarah Bradbury and their family partners, Jeff and Sandy Mays. Atkinson had served as general manager for Lesher Communications at the group of Sonoma County weeklies, having started his west coast newspaper career at The Healdsburg Tribune in 1982. Atkinson is originally from Frederick, Md., where he started his newspaper career at The Frederick News-Post in 1974.
Sebastopol’s newspaper in 1995 was renamed Sonoma West Times & News with the merging of the Russian River News and original Sebastopol Times. Ownership was in the name of Sonoma West Publishers, owned by Atkinson, which purchased The Healdsburg Tribune and The Windsor Times in 2000 and added the Cloverdale Reveille in 2013.
Over the 130 years, the tools and trade of publishing a newspaper has changed dramatically, along with most other industrial age and digital age developments. Sebastopol’s newspapers have been printed by hand, steam, electric and computer. Heavy lead plates and “hot type” printing was employed until the advent of “cold type” in the 1970s. The clunky punch-tape and messy silver-based photo processing was all replaced by desktop publishing with the arrival of Apple’s Macintosh computers in 1985.
Looking ahead to the rest of this 21st century, the digital age has been both a blessing and a curse for newspapers. The blessing is from all the time- and labor-saving devices of computers and portable digital file formats. The curse is the rise of social media goliaths like Facebook, Google and Amazon that are eating into newspapers’ advertising base and revenues.
“We’ve managed to print newspapers without horse and buggy delivery for almost a century,” said Atkinson. “We’ll just have to figure out how to next deliver the news with whatever is coming next after our last printing press dies. Printing on paper might end soon, but Sebastopol will still need a way to get its news. I think journalists have a big role to play here for as long as I can see into the future.”