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Press Democrat executive editor Catherine Barnett to retire after 44 years with Santa Rosa newspaper

Forty-four years after Catherine Barnett first stepped into the Press Democrat building as a newsroom intern, the Santa Rosa native will retire as the newspaper’s executive editor at year’s end.

“I feel very lucky to do the work I love in the place that’s my home,” said Barnett, 65, a fourth-generation member of the family for which west county’s Barnett Valley is named.

Known by all as Cathy, she worked her way up the ranks in the Press Democrat newsroom and in 1999 became its top editor — the first woman to hold the role in the newspaper’s 123-year history — with responsibility for its print and digital report. Under her leadership, the newspaper won journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for its coverage of the deadly wildfires of 2017 and was repeatedly named the best newspaper of its size by the California News Publishers Association.

During her tenure The Press Democrat returned to local ownership after experiencing the high and lows of being run by out-of-state chains. With skill and grit, she led efforts to maintain a vigorous news report amid a host of economic challenges, ranging from the Internet age to the COVID-19 crisis, that inflicted deep cuts in newsrooms across the country and created news deserts of uncovered communities without the benefit of strong local journalism.

“The one regret I have,” said Barnett, who grew up in Santa Rosa and has lived for years outside Healdsburg, “is that I am finishing my career not working in the newsroom.

“We can create a first-rate news report remotely, as the recent fires have shown, but I miss being together and feeding off one another’s contagious energy. I miss hearing the reporters interview their sources and hanging over editors’ shoulders to get the context just right.”

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, The Press Democrat has produced its digital and print report from the homes of its reporters, photographers, editors, designers, web producers and other staffers. The newsroom, historically a bustle of collegiality, idea sharing and animated conversation among journalists committed to their trade, is largely empty most days.

Barnett acknowledged it has been difficult for newsroom employees to be scattered away from the main building on Santa Rosa’s Mendocino Avenue, but their dedication and professionalism, witnessed by their coverage of the Glass fire, has endured.

“This is an overachieving newsroom,” she said. “I wish our readers could see how hard our staff works to get the story right.”

Barnett’s longtime friend, mentor and colleague, Gaye LeBaron, who writes two columns a month as The Press Democrat’s longest-tenured employee, called her “a class act.”

“She’s more than just a hometown kid who made good,” said LeBaron. “She could have gone anywhere and done anything.”

A class of 1973 Santa Rosa High School alumna, Barnett graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Southern California with a BA in journalism and political science, then earned a master’s degree in English and literature from the University of Kent in England.

“She’s an interesting combination of the hometown product with an international education,” LeBaron said.

Jean Schulz, one of the investors who returned the PD to local ownership in 2012 and the prime keeper of the creative enterprises begun or inspired by her late husband, “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, said Barnett embodied the newspaper.

“For the past 25 years or so, since I have paid slightly closer attention to the paper, I have felt that Cathy Barnett was the heart and soul of The Press Democrat,” Schulz said.

Susan Gorin, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, described Barnett as “an aggressive newswoman — always pushing for access and information. She is an absolute fierce protector of her great reporters, pushing them, government, business and community to be the best they can be.”

Paul Gullixson, the former career newsman who was the paper’s editorial director and now is chief spokesman for the County of Sonoma, said, “Having Cathy step down is going to be the end of an era for the PD.”

Barnett is married to a fellow deep-rooted Sonoma County native, Tim Tesconi, who covered agriculture at The Press Democrat for 30-plus years, then led the Sonoma County Farm Bureau for nearly a decade before retiring. They have two sons.

Barnett, who was born in Santa Rosa in 1954, has worked her entire career at The Press Democrat. She was 21 when she started as a summer newsroom intern at the end of her junior year at USC. At that time, in 1976, the newspaper was owned by Evert Person and Ruth Finley Person, and the editor was Art Volkerts.

One year later, Barnett graduated from college on a Thursday and on the following Monday joined the PD news staff as a cub reporter. Diligent, smart and thorough, she earned the respect of editors, sources and colleagues as she covered stories across several news beats.

Her ascension up the newsroom ladder began with her 1987 promotion to city editor, responsible for assigning and working with reporters on stories. In 1999, when she was 44, then-publisher Mike Parman appointed her executive editor, a job he once held. Barnett said she remains grateful for the mentorship of Parman, a veteran journalist brought in by the New York Times to be the newspaper’s first editor under their ownership.

She speaks also of her gratitude to the Sonoma County people who purchased The Press Democrat in early 2012, less than a year after a Florida outfit that had no particular interest in a California newspaper but acquired it in a deal involving all of the regional papers owned by the New York Times Co. The Press Democrat was owned the Times from 1985 until the sale to the Florida group, Halifax Media.

After the newspaper’s acquisition by Sonoma Media Investments, the new owners asked her to relaunch Sonoma magazine in 2013 as its editor-in-chief. She agreed and since then the publication has repeatedly received national recognition as the best regional magazine of its size in the country.

In the 1990s, she directed the reporting that revealed the Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa’s early and prominent role in what would become a nationwide scandal of pedophile priests. Coverage began with a call to the newsroom from a victim and grew to include the eventual jailing of multiple diocesan priests.

In 2004, she and a team of Press Democrat editors led an eight-month investigation exploring the human and economic toll of decisions by two employers in Sonoma County to export more than 2,000 manufacturing jobs overseas. The four-day series, "Global Shift," won the George M. Polk Award, a prestigious national award that honors original and thoughtful investigative work.

She played another leadership role in the coverage of the cataclysmic Tubbs and Nuns fires that brought the paper the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage. It is the newspaper’s second, following a 1997 Pulitzer for spot news photography awarded to then-staffer Annie Wells for an unforgettable image of a firefighter saving a girl caught in a raging creek.

Barnett said she’s always been “a little cautious” about touting the 2018 Pulitzer, mindful that it came for the many news stories and photographs that chronicled one of the deadliest and most destructive events ever in Sonoma County. But she was heartened by how wholeheartedly the community cheered the newspaper’s award and expressed gratitude for vital coverage. The newspaper may not shine every day or with every story, she said, but that award demonstrated that “when we are called on to rise to the occasion, we do.”

In a message to employees Friday, Press Democrat Publisher Steve Falk said Barnett’s “reputation for and commitment to local journalism of distinction is unparalleled in the industry” through her 21 years as The Press Democrat’s lead editor.

“Cathy not only turned down several significant opportunities over those years to move elsewhere, she led our newsroom through four owners and six publishers. I’m proud to be the one who outlasted her,” Falk wrote.

Evidence of Barnett’s success, he said, shone in the development “of some of the finest journalists in the business” along with the validation of a Pulitzer and “more regional and state awards than any other newspaper our size.”

"And the ultimate measure of success,“ he continued, ”is from readers who make a decision every day. Today the PD is one of the most read regional newspapers in the country as measured by household penetration.

“Our next editor will have big shoes to fill.”

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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