Sebastopol, Windsor, Healdsburg & more Newspapers Becoming Nonprofit

To keep local journalism alive, the owners of this newspaper and three other community newspapers in Sonoma County are transferring their ownership to a new nonprofit created to help the papers compete in a 21st century news market defined by online competition and a flood of information that is often free.

Adding to these concerns is this month’s shelter-in-place order triggered by the COVID-19 virus, which is expected to last for weeks and has triggered a flood of ad cancellations at media companies statewide.

To meet these challenges, Sonoma West Times & News, The Healdsburg Tribune, The Windsor Times and the Cloverdale Reveille will be acquired by the Sonoma County Local News Initiative, a new nonprofit dedicated to providing fact-based journalism in the four communities.

“Advertising and subscriptions no longer bring in enough income to support newspapers,” said Dick Bugarske, president of the new nonprofit. “Our nonprofit will be able to add donations, grants and memberships to the income stream. We urge everyone to contribute and help our newspapers thrive.”

During the transition, expected to be completed this year, the newspapers will continue to operate as usual. Nothing changes for readers, subscribers or advertisers. Only one thing is new: Now the newspapers will also be funded by tax-deductible donations, grants and memberships.

Current owners and the nonprofit are weighing a digital future.

“Community support will determine the future of local news as a printed newspaper,” Bugarske said.

As soon as the four newspapers are stabilized, the nonprofit also intends to expand local journalism in other ways, such as community events, grants, scholarships and special journalism projects.

For eight months Rollie Atkinson and Sarah Bradbury, publishers of the four papers, have been working with a team of community leaders. Out of this study and analysis came the decision to create a new nonprofit organization dedicated to sustaining the papers, encouraging more civic engagement and increasing media literacy.

The nonprofit incorporated on Jan. 24 and was planning a formal launch for May.

With the arrival of COVID-19, it is launching immediately.

A growing number of U.S. community newspapers are changing from for-profit to nonprofit as they try to survive in a world where their decades-old business model of selling ads to pay the bills no longer works. One recent example is the Salt Lake Tribune, the major paper in Salt Lake City, Utah. It announced in November that it had received Internal Revenue Service approval to become the nation’s first traditional newspaper to go fully nonprofit.

“With this new nonprofit, we are proud to join forward-thinking colleagues across the country that are creating sustainable business models for local news,” said Atkinson. He and Bradbury are majority owners of Healdsburg-based Sonoma West Publishers, the parent company of the four newspapers.

The papers are historic institutions in their communities. The Healdsburg Tribune began in 1865, the Cloverdale Reveille in 1879, the Sonoma West Times & News in Sebastopol in 1889, and the Windsor Times in 1987.

Atkinson and Bradbury do not stand to profit from the sales of assets under the proposed structure.

“There are communities today facing this COVID-19 public health crisis without a newspaper that is dedicated to their information needs and well-being. We refuse to let that happen here. We are needed now and when the next crisis hits our community; and we will be needed on all the good days ahead that will surely come,” said Atkinson.

The new model will test the strength of the community’s commitment to local news, observers said.

“We’re convinced these four communities value their papers and will contribute what it takes to keep them alive, just as our members have long supported us,” said Nancy Dobbs, president emerita of Northern California Public Media, the North Bay’s public media nonprofit and home of KRCB radio and television.

Dobbs is a member of a founding board of directors that will steer the Sonoma County Local News Initiative through the transition.

The nonprofit hopes to raise $1 million in its initial fundraising drive, to buy the assets of Sonoma West Publishers, establish reserves and put the papers on solid financial footing. The amount it pays to acquire the papers cannot exceed their market value, which will be established by an independent appraisal.

Atkinson and Bradbury will continue to run the newspapers until the nonprofit takes ownership. At that time the nonprofit’s board of directors will make staffing decisions for the publications.

“The nonprofit allows us to continue to encourage community involvement and informed engagement in our small towns,” said founding board member Marie Gewirtz. “It preserves ethical, truthful reporting on local issues that affect the quality of daily life in our communities.”

Members of the founding nonprofit board are:

• President Dick Bugarske, retired Healdsburg High School principal

• Secretary Rick Theis, founder, Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy

• Treasurer Mary Fricker, retired Press Democrat business reporter

• Nancy Dobbs, retired president/CEO of KRCB Northern California Public Media

• Marie Gewirtz, founder, wine and food marketing & public relations firm

• Holly Hoods, executive director, curator, Healdsburg Museum

• Rick Massell, retired El Molino High School math, science, and technology teacher

The advisors to the board are:

• Kathryn Hecht, founder, executive director, Alexander Valley Film Society

• Mary Luttrell, Certified Management Consultant, Emeritus

• Sarah Bradbury, co-owner Sonoma West Publishers

• Rollie Atkinson, co-owner Sonoma West Publishers

See more information about the Sonoma County Local News Initiative and make a donation at www.socolocalnews.org. Contact Bugarske at rbugarske@gmail.com.