GULLIXSON: A season of change at year's end
Published: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 5:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 8:26 a.m.
"In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper.”
— Warren Buffett, on his purchase of 63 newspapers in May.
I don't know much about Buffett's business. But as one who has worked for newspapers for nearly 30 years, I understand a little of what he's talking about here. Strong communities are worth an investment — sometimes even a monetary one.
I bring this up in answer to two questions I have been asked often lately: What do you think of the change of ownership at The Press Democrat and how is it going?
My answer to the first is that after four remarkably turbulent years for our economy, this industry and this company in particular — including having three owners over the past 11 months — I find myself ending the year as optimistic as I have been in some time.
My answer to the second is that it's been crazy — a frenzy of activity as we've been hiring new people, shifting to new benefit plans, consolidating offices and doing the thousand tasks needed to make The Press Democrat locally owned and operated again.
And the Editorial Department has been in the thick of it. Last week, because of our company's overall need to consolidate space, we were evicted from the third-floor office that had been our home for decades. I say that without malice as our new quarters (back by the newsroom library on the second floor) have a fresh coat of paint, a few windows, good lighting and is more than adequate to meet our current needs. Better still, it offers a fresh start. Moving has forced us to clean out files that I suspect haven't been touched since the Reagan administration.
But to fully explain my thoughts about these changes, I need to tell this story.
Twenty years ago, I worked for another suburban newspaper, one of similar size and similar community roots, particularly for me. The Peninsula Times Tribune, formerly the Palo Alto Times, was my hometown paper, the one I delivered as a boy and the first daily to offer me a reporting job.
I had been there six years when in late 1992, the paper's owner, the Tribune Co., announced that the newspaper was for sale.
Days later I found myself meeting with a group of local investors who were interested in buying the paper and returning it to local ownership. They wanted my help. The group included some distinguished names in the local community including Bill Lane, the founder of Sunset Magazine.
It was not easy. The newspaper was in dire financial straits, and the Tribune Co. didn't come across as motivated to work a deal. Its main interest, it seemed to me, was in selling the primary asset — one block of real estate in downtown Palo Alto.
Nevertheless, we were still in negotiations on March 12, 1993, when suddenly everything fell apart. Employees were called to a second-floor meeting where the publisher announced that the newspaper, which had just celebrated its 100th anniversary, was folding. We were given just a few hours to clean out our desks.
I remember one young reporter, John Woolfolk stuffing his clips in a backpack, running up on the cafeteria patio and throwing them down to a friend on the sidewalk as a way to bypass the guards. Having those clips later helped him get a job at the San Jose Mercury News, where he remains today.
So it was with some concern that 20 years later I found myself at another community newspaper — although a far more financially healthy one — in a similar economy. But this time, the story came with a better ending.
As has been well reported, on Nov. 8, this newspaper was sold to a group of local investors known as Sonoma Media Investments. “We tried to put together a group of people that represents a cross section of the community — the best of Sonoma County,” said Darius Anderson, a principal investor and architect of the deal to acquire the PD from Halifax Media Group. And they did.
The list of investors is distinguished and, best of all, familiar: Doug Bosco, Jeannie Schulz, Norma Person, Steve Falk, Bill Hooper, Les Vadasz, Gary Nelson, Sandy Weill and Bill Jasper.
My impression remains that these individuals are true to their word. They did not buy this newspaper to exert influence on editorial policy or content. They, like Warren Buffett, simply share a common belief that newspapers are still an integral asset to close-knit communities like this — and are worth preserving.
I'm not a native Sonoma County resident, but I have two children who are. And, although they may not appreciate this now, I hope they, as well as the rest of the community, will one day.
For me, I've often wondered what it would have been like had those investors found a way to preserve my old newspaper and keep it operating as a locally owned product. I'm pleased to say that with a new office around us, new faces among us and a new year before us, we're about to find out.
Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com or call him at (707) 521-5282.
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