In liberal wine country, turning newspaper readers into shareholders 

HEALDSBURG, Calif. — The town square here feels as if it is from a bygone era: lush greenery, redwoods and palm trees, a bakery that sells its famed sticky buns each morning, a more-than-a-century-old inn that proclaims its “wine country warmth.”

It is also the sort of place, with an abundance of wealth and aging baby boomers, that loves its local newspaper.

Even so, last year Rollie Atkinson, the owner and publisher of The Healdsburg Tribune and three other weeklies in Sonoma County, was staring down a grim financial reality. The business model, he said, was “failing rapidly.” He was tired of throwing his savings into the newspapers to keep them going, and weary of the “daily struggle” of staying afloat in an environment where readers have access to a torrent of information for free.

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“I knew we had to do something different,” he said.

He hired a broker to put a value on his business, thinking perhaps he could find a deep-pocketed investor. That went nowhere.

Then he found another possibility. Just to the south, in Berkeley, Calif., an online news site called Berkeleyside had taken a new approach to the crisis in local news: Sell stock to its readers. It was wildly successful. The site’s direct public offering — a more intimate version of an initial public offering in which a company sells stock without an investment bank — began in 2016 and closed this year. It raised $1 million.

“The D.P.O. just hit all the right buttons,” Mr. Atkinson said. “It allowed for longer-range planning. It provides for community ownership, community buy-in.”

So, in what is believed to be a first for a local newspaper, Mr. Atkinson undertook a similar strategy for the four newspapers that make up his Sonoma West company, which have a combined paid circulation of 9,900: The Healdsburg Tribune, The Cloverdale Reveille, The Windsor Times and Sonoma West Times & News. Since March, he has gotten a quarter of the way to his goal of $400,000. The offering lasts until March 2019, and the road show consists of Mr. Atkinson making his pitch over cocktails, at dinner parties and in everyday conversations around town. (A prospectus is posted online, offering a rare look at the finances of a local newspaper chain.)

“We’re a high-contact sport around here,” Mr. Atkinson said in a recent interview alongside Ray Holley, his managing editor. “Our readers are right here. We’re face to face. When we are in the grocery store checkout line, there are our subscribers and readers. For Ray and I, it takes a long time to get our shopping done.”

Local newspapers have long been staples of communities across the country. But the shifts in the wider media industry have been devastating to these smaller publications. Over the past decade, many have closed while others have cut their newsroom staffs and how many times a week they publish.

Yet the political moment the nation finds itself in has helped Mr. Atkinson’s crusade. Sonoma County is reliably blue — although there are pockets of conservatism in its agricultural communities — and President Trump’s constant attacks on the news media have worried many of the papers’ readers.

A number of Mr. Atkinson’s new investors have told him that they do not just want to save their local paper. They also want to “save democracy,” he said.

One of those investors is Marie Gewirtz, 67, who has lived here for three decades and is retired from her job in marketing in the local wine industry.

“Many of us really treasure our local newspaper,” she said. “I was raised to believe that journalism was key to democracy.”

In recent years, as the print paper cut back by two pages some weeks, there was a backlash among members of the community, especially older ones, who felt a cherished ritual was disappearing. “The people who wanted to sit and read the print paper with a glass of wine or cup of coffee,” Ms. Gewirtz said.

She added, “I think, now more than ever, we can support democracy by supporting our communities.”

Rick Theis, 72, also retired from the wine industry, said: “I get my notifications from The New York Times every day, and I open them up with dread. What did our infamous president do now?”

So he put $5,000 in Sonoma West, an investment that he said made him feel that he was pushing back, in a small away, against forces that have diminished the role of traditional journalism in American society.

“I really depend on the small community newspaper,” Mr. Theis said. “They at least have trained journalists reporting the news, which social media does not.”

Mary Fricker, a retired reporter who worked for the local daily paper, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, said the national mood had not been behind her decision to invest. She has lived in the area for decades, and write-ups in the local paper about her children and grandchildren fill her scrapbooks.

“I grieve every day over what’s happened to journalism, especially newspapers,” she said. “I need to put my money where my mouth is.”

Many of the same issues that animate communities across California, like an affordable housing shortage and devastating wildfires, are the ones that dominate the pages of Mr. Atkinson’s newspapers. There is a deep affinity for local businesses — witness the two independent bookshops on the town square, and the locally owned hardware stores — and the county’s communities have been more successful than others in the United States in keeping big-box retailers away.

Still, the cost of housing is so high that Mr. Holley, the managing editor, always asks potential new hires if they have a stable place to live.

Mr. Atkinson said he believed that his was the first local newspaper to sell stock directly to readers. Rick Edmonds, the media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, said he knew of no other examples, even at a time of great experimentation at the level of local news, with owners testing online pay walls and nonprofit models.

“We’re kind of in a period now — an inflection point, you could say — where more and more different things are coming up,” Mr. Edmonds said.

In a note to its readers published this year, Berkeleyside’s editors wrote, “Local news around the U.S. is in peril, but Berkeleyside’s D.P.O. shows that small sites can raise the capital they need to succeed from within their very own communities.” Berkeleyside also helped Sonoma West with its D.P.O.

Mr. Atkinson was quick to emphasize that he did not believe a stock offering would work for many other local newspapers, especially those that are not in wealthy areas like Sonoma County, or have the same kind of older readership with liberal leanings.

Now that he has an influx of money, however, one of the first things he plans to do is raise salaries for his staff, which has eight newsroom employees. Reporters have been making $15 an hour, a rate that California has decided will be its minimum wage in a few years.

“That’s not because I’m stingy,” Mr. Atkinson said. “That’s because it’s all we could afford.”

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