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Index-Tribune owner buys Sonoma County Gazette, a free monthly publication

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Sonoma Media Investments, owner of the Sonoma Index-Tribune and other North Bay publications, announced Friday it has acquired Sonoma County Gazette, a free hyperlocal magazine that relies upon article submissions from local residents.

The Santa Rosa-based publisher bought the Gazette from Vesta Copestakes of Forestville. She turned what was originally a newsletter for the Forestville Chamber of Commerce into a 72-page publication with a monthly distribution of 35,000 printed copies, featuring everything from Camp Meeker updates to listings of volunteer opportunities and area nature hikes.

The sale price was not disclosed though Copestakes said in an interview annual revenue is about $500,000. She will stay on as publisher in 2020 to assist in the ownership transition.

“It gives us the ability to reach deeper into our local communities. It is a very unique product in that all of the editorial contributions are written by readers and community members,” said Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments. “It allows us to reach into neighborhoods with local content and local advertising that you don’t find in The Press Democrat.”

The acquisition is positive news in a tough print media industry, as local publishers attempt to find new sources of revenue. They continue grappling with declining print sales, while striving to grow digital readership and advertising. That transition has been brutal with many casualties. Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have closed nationwide, according to PEN America, a nonprofit group that backs press freedom. On Sunday, the Martinez News-Gazette in Contra Costa County — one of California’s oldest newspapers — will print its final edition after publishing for 161 years.

Copestakes put up for sale the Gazette she’s owned since 2003, after turning 70 this year and wanting to slow down from her typical 80-to-100-hour workweeks. As the lone full-time employee, she wears many hats, including editing, design work, advertising sales and distribution management. She works from her Forestville house and has a number of contract workers. Some of her writers are paid, while others contribute stories and listings for free.

The publication has found success with Generation X and millennial readers, she said, despite a trend of those demographic groups preferring to read news on smartphones and other digital platforms.

“The orientation of this publication is that it is community- and family-oriented,” Copestakes said, “so young people with families are really interested with things that they have to do with their home and where they are raising their children.”

Six potential buyers expressed interest, but Sonoma Media proved to be the most viable option, she said.

“The bottom line is that this had to be a business that is community-oriented because this is Sonoma County,” Copestakes said. “This is citizen journalism.”

Sonoma Media sees an opportunity to grow the publication, especially online. Falk said he thinks the Gazette’s digital readership can be increased tenfold in the first year. Its website has between 40,000 to 50,000 unique monthly visitors, Copestakes said.

“She never had the resources to develop a digital product. We can do that quickly,” Falk said of Sonoma Media, also the owner of the Petaluma Argus-Courier, Sonoma Index-Tribune, Sonoma Magazine, North Bay Business Journal, among other publications.

The sale of the Gazette will mean cost savings, too. It will be printed at The Press Democrat printing plant in Rohnert Park rather than in San Jose, Copestakes said.

“This is a great opportunity for us. We have looked at some acquisitions over the years and this is complimentary to what we already do,” Falk said.

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