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Chris Smith: Some hurting newspapers give up paper, some fold

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It’s a sad and scary time for community journalism and all who rely on it across America, and for sure in Sonoma County.

The Sebastopol area’s deep-rooted weekly newspaper and two of its three sister papers just halted their print editions.

The Sonoma West Times & News and its earlier iterations were in print for 131 years. Now and perhaps permanently, its readers and those of the Windsor Times and the Cloverdale Reveille will find the periodicals only online.

A fourth publication owned also by married couple Rollie Atkinson and Sarah Bradbury, the Healdsburg Tribune, which dates to 1865, continues to be printed on paper, but its future relies on readers ponying up with subscriptions and donations.

...

LIKE MANY OTHER newspapers across the nation, the four Sonoma County weeklies struggled mightily from declining advertising and subscriptions well before this pandemic caused many idled businesses to pull their ads.

“I am deeply saddened,” Atkinson told readers in announcements prominently placed in the final printed versions of the west county, Windsor and Cloverdale papers.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “a virus, a changed local economy and the loss of too many newspaper readers to Facebook, Google and elsewhere” put the papers “on unsustainable footing.”

Atkinson and Bradbury seem to be doing all they can to keep their four Sonoma West Publishers papers from suffering the fate of more than 2,000 U.S. newspapers that have shut down since 2004. The news industry’s harrowing losses have mounted dramatically since we first heard the term COVID-19.

...

THE PANDEMIC, we all know, has been brutal to many businesses. Newspapers certainly included.

A severe loss of advertising dollars from merchants and commercial services shut down or cut back by the crisis has forced many papers to cut staff, switch partially or entirely from print to digital, suspend operations or close the doors forever.

Many areas of the country now find themselves without a community paper or at least without one they can hold in their hands, or that retains enough reporters to have any hope of covering essential news.

The Press Democrat has held up better than many papers, but a steep drop in advertising resulting from the pandemic’s impacts on business has forced cost-cutting here that’s included some reductions in pay and hours.

...

FOR MANY YEARS, weeklies owners Atkinson and Bradbury have tested new approaches and practices to keep their weekly papers viable in a changing world. In 2018, they acted out of the box inviting readers to become co-owners by investing in shares of Sonoma West Publishers through a direct public offer.

That initiative helped and brought in $400,000. But in the face of withering ad and circulation revenue, Sonoma West Publishers still needed a new, sustainable business model.

Earlier this year, Atkinson and Bradbury announced they would transfer ownership and control of the four papers to a newly founded nonprofit, the Sonoma County Local News Initiative.

Among its founders are retired Healdsburg High School principal Dick Bugarske, Nancy Dobbs, co-founder of Northern California Public Media, operator of KRCB; Rick Theis, a pioneer of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy; retired Press Democrat reporter Mary Fricker and marketing and public relations executive Marie Gewirtz.

The nonprofit has begun to seek tax-deductible donations and grants for sustaining the four Sonoma County weeklies and to prepare for the day it will assume ownership of them.

Things were looking up for the Healdsburg Tribune and its sister papers. Then the pandemic struck.

“Fourteen papers in California folded since March,” Atkinson said Saturday. Decisive action was needed to prevent his four from joining them.

...

JUST LAST WEEK, the Healdsburg couple bid farewell to newsprint and ink and went all-digital at the Cloverdale, Windsor and greater Sebastopol papers. Sorrowful, pleading and also hopeful editorials ran in the final tangible editions.

Heather Bailey, editor of the Windsor Times, wrote that her publishers tried to persuade the community to be more supportive of community journalism through subscriptions, investment and donations.

“All of the pleas and warnings have been met with little more than a shrug,” Bailey wrote, “so now the time has come for us to shift the model of how we deliver the news.”

Acknowledging that some readers “will never be comfortable” with the switch to digital-only, Bailey vowed that there are advantages to it.

“Print is limited,” she wrote. "Digital is not.”

In what looks to be the last hold-it-in-your-hands edition of the Cloverdale Reveille, a paper that has served its community for 141 years, editor Zoë Strickland wrote that she will miss print and she knows some readers will, too. But Strickland added, “I firmly believe that switching to digital means Reveille readers will get more news about their community ...”

In the Sonoma West Times & News, the headline on a column by editor Laura Hagar Rush reads, “The end of paper is not the end of the newspaper.”

Rush shared that she reads only online.

“I don’t even like print newspapers,” she wrote. “I don’t like the brittle, cheap paper they’re printed on or the way they make you want to wash your hands after reading them. Or the fuzzy quality of the photos.”

Still, she wrote regarding the move away from paper newspapers, “I don’t know why that makes me so sad.”

...

A GREAT IRONY here is that just now, with lives in this region and around the world menaced and stuck in distressed limbo by the pandemic, there is massive demand for what newspapers produce: status reports, investigations, human stories, insight, analysis.

Back in the day, if you wanted to catch up on a huge story, you’d drop a nickel or a dime or whatever it took to buy a paper. Today, though paid digital readership is growing at the PD and some other papers, many online readers ignore requests that they help support journalism by paying for a digital subscription.

Newspapers are trying all sorts of strategies to survive and to continue their work as government watchdogs and tellers of a community’s stories.

Having previously invited investors to help keep his four newspapers alive, Rollie Atkinson prepares now to turn them over to the nonprofit, online at localnewsinitiative.info, that’s dedicated to championing local journalism and seeking grants and gifts and such to keep it alive.

Atkinson implores traditional, printed-on-paper readers to give digital reporting a try. He asks also that supporters of community journalism consider whether it’s deserving of the same sort of financial support enjoyed by vital community institutions such as performing arts centers.

Atkinson was straight-up with readers of the Healdsburg Tribune in his commentary announcing that while his other three newspapers are going digital-only the Sonoma West Publishers team strives to keep the Tribune vital both online and in print.

“How long we can continue to do this depends on you,” he wrote. “We need your financial support and we need it now.”

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

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