The very first newspaper in Santa Rosa, the parent of today’s Press Democrat, was begun in 1857, just three years after Santa Rosa was chosen as the seat of Sonoma County and seven years after California became a part of the United States.
Called the Sonoma Democrat this newspaper was a four-page weekly. Its name reflected the politics of the Santa Rosa and Russian River valleys, which were settled in the 1840s and ’50s by farmers from Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The founding publisher was Alpheus Russell, a merchant with some newspaper experience who came to open a general store on Third Street. John Taylor, a prosperous rancher south of the new town, encouraged Russell to establish the paper, giving him a five-dollar gold piece for the first subscription.
At the end of a year, Russell sold the paper to printer E.R. Budd, who sold it again in 1860. The new owner was Thomas Thompson, a young Virginian who had edited Petaluma’s Sonoma County Journal five years earlier at the age of 17.
Thompson was a supporter of the Southern cause and conventional wisdom of the time said that Democratic Party money, perhaps Confederate money, helped Thompson buy the paper to oppose the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Thompson and Samuel Cassidy, the Republican editor of the Petaluma paper, carried on a Civil War of words, in which Thompson was victorious.
Lincoln did not carry Sonoma County in either 1860 or 1864 elections.
Thompson played a major role in politics in Santa Rosa, the state, and later as U.S. Ambassador to Brazil. He sold the Sonoma Democrat in 1897 to Ernest L. Finley, owner of The Evening Press who merged the two papers and renamed the new publication The Press Democrat. Finley also bought The Santa Rosa Republican, the paper’s long-time competitor, in 1927. Ernest Finley’s wife, Ruth, was very much a part of the affairs of the newspaper. She encouraged him, also, to establish radio station KSRO in 1936. Control of the newspaper and radio station passed to Ruth at his death in 1942.
Mrs. Finley, described as a gentle, soft-spoken woman, co-published the two newspapers along with her son-in-law, Evert Person, for the next 31 years. During that time circulation of the newspaper rose from 10,000 to 55,000 subscribers. In 1948 the Santa Rosa Republican and The Press Democrat were merged. The Republican was renamed The Evening Press and continued as the afternoon edition. The morning edition continued as The Press Democrat. In 1951 The Evening Press died and The Press Democrat became the sole evening edition.
At Mrs. Finley’s death in 1973, ownership of The Press Democrat passed to her son-in-law and daughter, Evert and Ruth Person.
In 1985, shortly before Ruth Person died, the Persons sold The Press Democrat to The New York Times Company. In August 1985, three months after its takeover of the newspaper, The New York Times Company began construction on a $31 million, 78,000 square foot Rohnert Park production plant. Just one year later, the new Press Democrat rolled off the brand new 4-story presses and the community was urged to “Take a New Look.”
In January 2012, the Press Democrat Media Company briefly joined Halifax Media Holdings, a Florida-based company, ending the Press Democrat’s association with The New York Times Company. In November 2012, Sonoma Media Investments, LLC, (http://sonomamediainvestments.com) consisting of a group of local investors and community leaders, purchased The Press Democrat along with the North Bay Business Journal and the Petaluma Argus Courier, and all affiliated websites. This transaction returned the Press Democrat to local ownership after nearly three decades.
Today, 7 out of 10 people read The Press Democrat in the North Bay and it is the largest newspaper between San Francisco and the Oregon border.
Even now, the paper remains a reflection of the community it serves, through its Celebrate Community program and through additional contributions to area charities such as Social Advocates for Youth (SAY), the Children’s Museum, Roseland University Prep School and the American Heart Association, as well as acting as a major sponsor of the Volunteer Center for the annual Human Race event.
Additionally, the Press Democrat hosts the annual Celebrate Community Youth Service Awards which honors exemplary high school seniors for service work in Sonoma County.