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Local group to buy Petaluma Argus-Courier and Press Democrat

Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 12:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 12:45 p.m.

The Press Democrat and two affiliated publications in Sonoma County are being sold by Florida-based Halifax Media Group to a local partnership that includes two Democratic power brokers.

The main buyers in the deal announced Thursday include Darius Anderson, a Sonoma-based developer and top Sacramento lobbyist, and Doug Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney and former North Coast congressman who remains active in Democratic party politics.

Anderson, who has amassed valuable real estate holdings in Sonoma County, earlier this year led a different six-person partnership that bought the Sonoma Index-Tribune newspaper, which publishes twice a week.

The same holding company, Sonoma Media Investments LLC, is set to take over The Press Democrat, the weekly Petaluma Argus-Courier and North Bay Business Journal in Santa Rosa as well as websites for the three publications.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. The purchase could be completed as early as next week, said Steven Falk, one of the four main investors and chief executive of Sonoma Media Investments.

“We see a great opportunity in community journalism,” said Falk, a former president and publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle and current chief executive of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “I think there is a good story here about returning these papers to local ownership.”

The fourth principal buyer is Bill Hooper, president of Anderson's development firm, Kenwood Investments, and a former executive with Clear Channel Outdoor, the billboard advertising company.

Hooper and Anderson are the two principal buyers in the Halifax deal that also were involved in the Index-Tribune purchase.

Falk said the new acquisition held appeal because of “the long-standing reputation of The Press Democrat and other papers in the group.”

Halifax representatives, including chief executive Michael Redding, spoke to Press Democrat managers by phone Thursday morning but could not be reached for comment after the announcement.

In a written statement, Redding said that because “90 percent of our company is based in the Southeast, it makes geographic sense for Sonoma Media to own the business.”

Falk expressed confidence in the group's ability to invest in local journalism and still turn a profit.

“That's the goal at the end of the day,” he said. “Quality journalism and profit have to go hand in hand. Good journalism pays the bills.”

The Press Democrat, Argus-Courier and Business Journal have 291 employees and their combined digital sites, pressdemocrat.com, Petaluma360, NorthBayBusinessJournal.com, WatchSonomaCounty, 707, and PDPreps have an audience of 1 million to 1.3 million unique users. The Press Democrat newspaper circulation is 53,770 daily and 59,000 on Sunday.

Falk said he would provide more information on assets the group is buying, including The Press Democrat real estate, when the deal is closed.

The sale would end Halifax's brief ownership of The Press Democrat and the two weeklies, which it bought in January along with 13 other newspapers and related websites — mostly in the Southeast — from the New York Times Co. for a total of $143 million. The Times Co. owned The Press Democrat for 26 years. It bought the paper from the Finley family, longtime owner of the publication that has a 150-year history in Sonoma County.

Falk offered few other details about how the new owners intend to run the papers and whether they see The Press Democrat as the flagship of a growing regional media chain.

But he answered questions about political influence of news coverage. Both Anderson and Bosco are Democratic party insiders with significant business interests in the region. Falk and Hooper are Republicans who live outside the area.

He said the new owners would not influence newsroom work.

“I think it's clear that there are very competent journalists who are qualified to report the news and that will continue as it has been done in the past,” he said.

He did not say whether the new owners would reverse a recent Halifax decision to end editorial board endorsements of candidates running for elected office.

“It's certainly a topic that we will discuss,” he said.

Falk said he did not anticipate staff or management changes as a result of the sale.

Press Democrat Publisher Bruce Kyse echoed that message in a meeting Thursday with newsroom employees.

“Everything is always subject to market conditions and how you perform as a business, but they don't anticipate any (immediate) changes,” Kyse said.

Falk acknowledged he had talked with a union official for The Press Democrat's 50 represented newsroom employees but would not say whether he sought concessions. About 33 other workers in the press and circulation divisions also are unionized.

Falk said the new owners would meet union representatives at the bargaining table.

“I have a long-standing reputation of good and fair negotiations,” Falk said.

The Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents the paper's newsroom employees, released a statement after the sale announcement.

“We appreciate the efforts of our previous owners and wish them well, but we believe local ownership offers the best chance to achieve what we all want, and that is for The Press Democrat to continue to be the North Bay's premier source for quality local journalism,” the statement said.

— The Press Democrat

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