A remarkable experiment in quality local journalism emerged Thursday from the turmoil of ownership changes at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Guild members played a pivotal role as absentee corporate owners relinquished the 115-year-old North Bay daily to a local investment group led by political operative Darius Anderson, former U.S. Representative Doug Bosco and ex-San Francisco Chronicle CEO Steve Falk.
Anderson’s Sonoma Media Investments partnership completed its purchase just in time for a noon announcement Thursday, minutes after the Press Democrat Guild membership ratified a new contract. Bankers demanded the new labor deal be done as a condition of financing the partnership’s takeover.
It was a unanimous Guild vote but the outcome was hardly a sure thing.
The membership had to accept deep pay and benefit cuts, including loss of all further company contributions into a beloved pension plan. In exchange, the Anderson purchase group agreed to an unprecedented three-year contract with guarantees against layoffs, expanded Guild jurisdiction and the promise of a fresh start for quality journalism.
A sense of optimism and solidarity spread beyond the news staff in Sonoma County. Santa Rosa has a chance to become one of the most exciting journalism ventures anywhere, evidence perhaps that a dismal era of corporate cost-cutting may at last be over in at least a few media markets.
Press Democrat reporter Derek Moore, the Guild unit chair in Santa Rosa, sent an email to the membership at 11:41 a.m. Thursday announcing the unanimous secret-ballot vote result. The announcement capped a dramatic two-day rush to ratification, including two unit meetings and participation by nearly all 50 Guild members at the paper.
“This decision did not come easy and obviously it involves real sacrifice,” Moore wrote. “But with this showing we send a powerful message to our new owners that we are committed to doing our part to make this business thrive and to meet our mutual goal of quality, local journalism.”
He noted the contract bans involuntary layoffs for the entire term of the agreement. It also includes a 5 percent one-time cut in pay, rollback in vacation accrual and the end of night shift differentials. But the agreement also protects high-quality health benefits, keeps the 37.5-hour workweek intact, and adds $1 an hour into employee retirement accounts – almost balancing the pay cuts after taxes are factored into the equation. The Guild gains, for the first time, jurisdiction over online newsgathering, adding about four jobs to the unit right away, and more expected as print gives way to digital news delivery.
“The gains we made with this contract cannot be overstated. At the top of that list is job security for the next three years. In many significant ways this contract far exceeds our own expectations, regardless of who owns us or how it was produced. On that score this is a day of celebration,” Moore said.
He and the other Guild members were asked to stand and accept a round of applause during the downtown coming-out meeting convened by the new owners. Anderson’s young child played in the aisles as his partners and management team were introduced. Veteran Guild member and columnist Gaye LeBaron, a key player behind the scenes during the run-up to the sale announcement, sat with her husband and friends in the audience.
The new owners bought the Press Democrat, as well as an affiliated Petaluma daily and business weekly, from the Daytona Beach, Florida-based Halifax Media. The Florida group had only owned the North Bay properties since January, when Santa Rosa’s previous owner, The New York Times Co., sold its regional holdings.
Nobody in Santa Rosa had any doubt about Halifax’s intentions to sell its operations in Wine Country as soon as a deal could be struck. One early possibility had the Press Democrat going to another owner, which intended to cut 43 percent of payroll – dozens of local jobs – as soon as it took over.
That prospect only added to the anxieties in Sonoma County during 10 months of demoralizing absentee ownership. On Thursday, after the Guild vote and 11th-hour thumbs-up from the bankers, Anderson’s group got joyous applause from a couple hundred employees, spouses and community leaders gathered in the Unitarian Universalist Glaser Center downtown.
Anderson showed up wearing blue jeans to make clear that a new style of journalism was back in town. Halifax had imposed a deeply unpopular ban against blue jeans as part of its corporate dress code, a poor fit in a community known for creative talent and low-key lifestyle. Anderson declared, “My first order of new business is: the dress code is dead.”
Press Democrat Publisher Bruce Kyse, who gets to keep his job, choked back tears when he thanked his staff for enduring the uncertainty of two sales in less than a year.
Members of the Santa Rosa Guild unit have been anything but pushovers in past contract battles. Two years ago, the unit decided to refuse the company’s demand to roll pay back 2.5 percent, among other concessions, even though non-represented employees had been forced to take the cuts.
Now, by contrast, the unit membership voted to take nearly $500,000 out of its own yearly compensation – 17 percent of the annual Guild payroll – without a single dissenting vote.
That was mainly the result of the outstanding leadership and solidarity of Santa Rosa Guild members. It also happened because the new owners tried to forge common ground with the Guild, negotiating what otherwise could have been seen as mere concessions into a joint investment in quality jobs and journalism.
From my own perspective, this is a new start important not only for the Press Democrat, but for the entire news industry. We have to get past the death-spiral approach that has ruined so many other great newsrooms.
Anderson repeatedly promised to steer clear of the newsroom, despite concern that his partnership of local “power brokers” may try to turn Press Democrat journalists into their own PR machine.
“I am not that stupid to think I can meddle in the newsroom,” he said.
The ownership group includes some of the most famous names and favorite sons of the region. Besides Anderson, who grew up in Santa Rosa, and Bosco, who once employed Anderson as a congressional intern and driver in Washington, D.C., the investors include Jean Schulz, widow of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz; financier Sandy Weill; Norma Person, whose family had owned the Press Democrat for years before the New York Times took the helm; staffing-firm magnate Gary Nelson; and Bill Jasper, former CEO of Dolby Sound.
Falk, who headed business and circulation operations for years at the San Francisco dailies, moves to Santa Rosa after running the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. He has a long track record dealing with the Guild and many other Bay Area labor unions. He returns to that role in Santa Rosa, where he will serve as CEO of the new Sonoma Media investment group.
Falk offered to forge consensus moving forward. His biggest challenge will be to keep that promise, and the sense of budding good will, in the face of shrinking revenue trends and a weak national economy, troubles keenly felt even in the prospering heart of California’s world-famous wine country.
Freelance Unit member Kathleen Stewart Anderson contributed to this story.