(l to r) Sonoma Media Investments General Counsel Douglas Bosco, founder Darius Anderson, CEO Steve Falk and investor Gary Nelson announced the purchase of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat Media Group on Thursday, November 8, 2012. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

New owners share beliefs in Press Democrat's future

A partnership of influential local buyers told emotional stories Thursday about their purchase of The Press Democrat, describing it as nothing less than the salvation of a community institution.

In a press conference and at a gathering of newspaper employees, the new owners shared personal accounts of their ties to the paper and affirmed their belief in its journalism and prospects as a business.

They insisted they would refrain from interfering with news and editorial coverage. And they expressed confidence in their ability to steer the paper, with roots stretching back 155 years, out of the financial forces that have ravaged print media for more than a decade.

"I want this to be seen as the best community newspaper in the country," said Darius Anderson, the Sonoma-based developer and high-powered lobbyist who formed the purchase group, Sonoma Media Investments.

Another principal investor, former North Coast congressman Doug Bosco, said buying the paper would "return this great institution to its roots, where it got started and where it's going to stay."

"Absentee ownership of The Press Democrat is a thing of the past," he said.

The message earned hearty applause from newspaper employees, some of whom signed off on a rushed contract agreement Thursday that allowed the purchase to go forward.

"I personally believe this ownership group presents the best opportunity for success," Press Democrat Publisher Bruce Kyse told the audience of hundreds, including press, circulation, advertising and newsroom employees.

A broader test of the deal will come from readers and advertisers. The buyers sought to assure both that local ownership would mean greater investment in the publications and their affiliated websites.

"We look forward to continuing and expanding the focus on local news, information and entertainment in both print and digital products," said Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments and a former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The partnership closed a 10-month negotiation Thursday, buying The Press Democrat and two affiliated weeklies — the Petaluma Argus-Courier and the North Bay Business Journal — from Halifax Media Group of Daytona, Fla. Terms and conditions were not disclosed.

The names of six high-profile "community investors" involved in the acquisition also were revealed for the first time Thursday. They include county residents who made fortunes in banking, technology and human resources as well as prominent local benefactors.

On the list are Sandy Weill, the retired CEO and chairman of Citigroup and the philanthropist behind the completion of the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park; Bill Jasper, the former CEO and president of Dolby Sound; Les Vadasz, a founding member of Intel Corp.; and Gary Nelson, founder of the Nelson Family of Companies, which specialize in staffing and recruitment. All are residents of Sonoma.

Benefactors include Norma Person, the widow of Evert Person, who sold The Press Democrat to the New York Times Co. in 1985. Another is Jeannie Schulz, widow of Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip.

She said newspapers were her husband's "lifeblood" and The Press Democrat "part of the rhythm of my life for 50 years here in Santa Rosa."

Anderson, Bosco, Falk and Bill Hooper, president of Anderson's development firm, Kenwood Investments, were announced as the principals in the initial sale notice last week.

The overall partnership has a "high level of sophistication" and business success, Anderson said, experience that should serve the new media group well.

Anderson was a leading Democratic fundraiser before he founded a trio of lobbying, development and investment firms that made him one of the Bay Area's top dealmakers. He came to tears Thursday as he wove his own self-described "rags-to-riches story" into the history of the paper, recounting his family's close friendship with the late publisher Mike Parman.

He called the newspaper's return to local ownership "a dream come true."

"I didn't start out with a lot and now I have the opportunity to give back," Anderson said.

Earlier this year he bought a majority stake in the Sonoma Index-Tribune, which also is under the Sonoma Media Investments umbrella. That deal and others brought the value of his commercial and residential holdings in Sonoma and Sonoma Valley alone to more than $15 million.

Anderson was direct, however, in rebuffing speculation that his interest in newspapers was purely for their real estate value.

The real estate, including commercial property in Rohnert Park that went along with the sale, is needed to secure financing for the purchase. But development deals are not the group's primary aim, Anderson said.

"We're in the newspaper business now," he said.

The new regional media enterprise faces immediate concerns about political influence and the monopolization of local news coverage. The owners acknowledged they hope to expand their holdings.

"I can't imagine you would write something bad about your owner," said Sonoma Mayor Joanne Sanders, who shared her fears about centralized ownership of four of the county's largest news publications.

The leading partners stressed repeatedly Thursday that they would not be "meddling" in news coverage.

"It would be unconscionable for the owners to try to influence people whose profession it is to look at the news and editorials objectively," said Bosco, who served in Congress from 1982 to 1990 and still wields substantial influence in Democratic Party politics. He has worked as an attorney representing timber, mining and railroad interests and is set to become the media group's salaried general counsel.

Any heavy-handed interference would likely not be tolerated by editorial staffers or readers and would undermine the publications as a business venture, Anderson said.

"I want to win awards," Anderson said, emphasizing his desire for investigative journalism. "If the story is about me, bravo."

Both Bosco and Anderson are newsmakers with significant business and political interests in the region. Both also have been touched by scandal and taken what Bosco called "our lumps" in local news coverage. Neither will serve on the editorial board.

Anderson paid $500,000 in 2010 to settle claims by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that he had acted as an unlicensed broker to win investments for a Los Angeles private equity fund. The case was part of a year-long investigation into pay-to-play practices in public pension fund investment partnerships.

Neither Anderson nor his lobbying firm, Platinum Advisors, admitted any wrongdoing. He said Thursday he was not connected to the "improprieties" that were the target of the inquiry.

When he was a congressman, Bosco was interviewed by the FBI over home loans he received from two local thrifts that would later be seized by regulators. He was never tied to any illegal activity.

Bosco's stately McDonald Avenue home has long been associated with the newspaper. Three former Press Democrat publishers have lived there, including Ernest Finley, who founded The Press Democrat by merging two weeklies in 1897.

Falk, the Sonoma Media chief executive, said it was likely he would join the editorial board.

The purchase was finalized after The Press Democrat's unionized newsroom employees signed a three-year contract Thursday that includes economic concessions but provides job security for current workers.

Carl Hall, executive officer for the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents the paper's newsroom employees, hailed the deal as a "new start for the Press Democrat media group and a fresh start for the entire newspaper business."

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)

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