Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments LLC, and former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle was the guest speaker at the Sonoma County Alliance October 3 general membership meeting. Prior to coming to the North Bay, Falk was president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce from 2005 to 2012.

His topic ranged from an overview of the six publications that are part of the Sonoma Media Investments (SMI) family, including the Press Democrat, North Bay Business Journal, Petaluma Argus Courier, Sonoma Index-Tribune, Sonoma Magazine and La Prensa Sonoma. He also discussed the demographics of readers across the counties where these publications are delivered as well as news reporting during the October 2017 fires and the recently awarded Pulitzer Prize for the Press Democrat’s comprehensive breaking news coverage.

Falk said the North Bay’s 525,400 adults who shop, buy, dine, travel, entertain and raise families in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma Counties have five diverse solutions they can turn to when it comes to getting news in print and online throughout this territory.  The average per-issue readership for the weekday Press Democrat (PD), for example, is 151,600 and on Sunday this rises to 170,700 with another 115,500 seeing the PD online over a seven-day period.  

At the same time, 16,300 are reading the Petaluma Argus Courier, 14,500 for the Sonoma Index-Tribune, 15,600 for the North Bay Business Journal, 15,000 for La Prensa and 100,000 for Sonoma Magazine. “Putting it all together, each week 379,700 adults in the North Bay read one of our products in print or online – that’s seven out of 10 North Bay adults.” 

He said Sonoma County alone has 404,873 adults age 18 and over.  The one-day reach of the PD on weekdays is 139,734 (35% of the adult population), and on Sunday it is 162,676 (40%).  Those taking the PD weekdays and Sunday total 191,275 (47%).  The typical one-day reach of the online edition of the PD is 48,108 viewers (12%).  When weekday/Sunday/online figures are added together, the PD’s reach accounts for 52% of county’s population. 

Over the three-county area, the unduplicated seven-day print readership is 261,400 or 50% reach among North Bay adults, and with the seven-day unduplicated print and digital readership is tallied, the total is 314,600 adults, or a 60% reach of the adult population in these counties.

Summarizing these statistics, Falk said the weekly reach of the PD in Sonoma County for the print edition is 235,450 readers (58%), for online it is 102,386 (25%), and print and online together account for 277,884, (69%).

In terms of engagement and growth, there are 2.0 million total unique visitors to the PressDemocrat.com each year accounting for 18 million total page views. The number of unique visitors is up 17% over last year. This group was responsible for generating a 15% increase in total sessions over last year representing the number of times people viewed the PD by phone (52%), by desktop computer (38%) and by tablets (10%), according to Google Analytics in August 2018, and Scarborough Research 2018 R1 reports.  Social media interactions while viewing the PD by Facebook resulted in 93.4k “likes” representing one million post engagements. In addition, the PD also had 43.8k Twitter followers.

What do all these numbers mean?  PressDemocrat.com was number 1 among local media sites and outlets over a 30-day period among 32.6% of North Bay adults as well as 32.6% of adults with household incomes of $100,000 or higher.  This reach is almost 10% higher than NBCBayArea.com and more than 15% to 20% above all other online media including ABC7News; CBSS.com/KPIX.com; KQED.org; KTVU.com; SFGate.com; KRON4.com, and seven other news and sports network online editions.

Looking at this another way, PressDemocrat.com was number six among all other major online sites over a 30-day period exceeded only by Google, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and Netflix.com, according to the same analytical research organizations. In this comparison, PressDemocrat.com was ahead of Xfinity/Comcast; eBay; Yahoo; Pandora CraigsList; Google+; Yelp; TheWeatherChannel and Instagram for reaching North Bay adults.

Falk pointed out that based on these independent studies, Sonoma County residents read daily newspapers In Print more than the rest of the nation (some 61% and higher than readers if local print news media in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and 14 other major DMAs in the U.S.).   

What about San Francisco? The same statistics show that SF ranks 32nd among the 77 top U.S. markets nationwide with just 45% of the population reading a print-edition daily newspaper.

He said the PD’s commitment to local news is what makes this possible. With the largest news gathering staff between San Francisco and Portland, the PD has 22 reporters, five photographers, eight editors and 11 copy editors/designers and support staff.  Staff members of other Sonoma Media Investments (SMI) products add another 15 reports and support staff.  This brings the total fulltime SMI editorial staff to 65 with dozens of freelance writers.

The October Fires

The largest of last year’s fires started at 9:43 p.m. on October 8, 2017 and traveled 20 miles in five hours burning 6,000 homes in its path. The speed of the fire was aided by winds of up to 60-80 miles per hour in an area that had not seen rain for many months.  PD photographers Kent Porter and Martin Espinoza were on the front lines immediately after the blazes started and followed the progress of the flames.

When the smoke cleared, dozens of our communities had been destroyed and aerial views showed only circles of ash were homes had once been. The only signs that dwellings had been there were stone and brick fireplace chimneys, steel beams and burned out vehicles. One of the worst affected communities was Coffey Park on the west side of Santa Rosa.

Returning home, residents searched debris for any keepsakes they could find among the rubble.  The PD staff and photographers spoke with homeowners displaced, first responders and cleanup crews working to return the region to some sense of normalcy. Many emergency shelters were opened and food as well as water, clothing and other supplies poured in. In the days that followed, local residents attempted to put their lives back together by assessing damage, communicating with family and friends and by attempting to locate those still missing.

Impact on Website Traffic

The North Bay wildfires and their aftermath had an enormous impact on the PD website last October. Total unique visitors spiked upward to 4.3 million and total page views rose dramatically to 72.2 million. On Monday October 9, unique visitors to Sonoma Media Investment sites totaled 700,000 – up 564% over the day before. Total page views for that day were more than 9.9 million (Facebook had 87.9k likes increasing by 15,000, and Twitter had 39.8k followers) according to the October digital traffic report from Google Analytics. 

The first fire relief ad ran October 11 for the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a partnership among the Red wood Credit Union, The Press Democrat, Senator Mike McGuire with community leaders such as PG&E contributing $200,000 or more and with community support of $100,000 or more from firms such as Sonoma Media Investments.  

By the end of December 2017, some $32,028,981 had been raised from some 41,134 generous donors. The Tipping Point Emergency Relief Fund raised $33 million to support North Bay Fire Relied thanks to the greater Santa Rosa and Sonoma County community and the Band Together Bay Area effort.

The Pulitzer Prize

“For its lucid and tenacious coverage of historic wildfires that ravaged the City of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County by expertly utilizing an array of tools, including photography, video and social media platforms to bring clarity to its readers in real time and in subsequent in-depth reporting,” the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded the Press Democrat the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for “Breaking News Reporting.”

Where Are We One Year Later?

As of September 1, 2018, the big picture on construction was as follows:  Total homes lost (5,334); homes under construction (1,041); Permits pending (410); permits issued (343) and homes rebuilt (31). A review of lots in burn zones from November 1 (2017) to August 31 (218) showed 616 lots listed for sale and 351 lots sold.  During this same time period, 1,729 homes were lost in the Larkfield and Mark West Springs neighborhoods, 1,586 in Fountaingrove, 1,473 in Coffey Park, and 518 in Sonoma and Bennett Valleys.

In the Crown Hill Drive area of Fountaingrove, of the 1,586 homes lost, two had been rebuilt and 165 were under construction as of September 1.  Some 890 homes are under construction in Santa Rosa, and 23 homes already built, another 277 permit applications are in progress.

Experts say 30,000 housing units are needed countywide to make up for a long-standing demand as well as additional homes lost in the fires. Is that possible, Falk asked?  He looked back over the previous 18 years to see how many homes had been built between 2000 and 2008 (18,000) and between 2009 and 2016 (6,300) showing the lost opportunity to reach the 30,000 homes level.  

Falk observed that in various Sonoma County General Plans, housing unit estimates made by the county’s nine cities and unincorporated areas totaled 188,487 units in 2010, and 194,995 in 2015. These plans now call for 241,545 units, but only 14,767 units are currently in the pipeline. 

“The challenge ahead means we have a big hill to climb.  We have the sites and the plans. Now all we need is the will to do it,” he added.

Turning to the financial state of SMI, Falk said as of December 1, 2018, all Sonoma Media Investor bank loans will be paid off.  “For us, that’s really good news.”

Photo by Beth Schlanker, Press Democrat