In an interview Wednesday afternoon, North Bay Business Journal publisher Brad Bollinger told the Bohemian that the Journal and its parent company, Sonoma Media Investments (SMI), have left a local business group following a controversial blog post by the group’s former president.
Sonoma Media Investments, founded in 2011, now owns the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, North Bay Business Journal, Petaluma Argus-Courier, Sonoma Index-Tribune, La Prensa Sonoma, Sonoma County Gazette, Sonoma Magazine and Spirited Magazine.
The Sonoma County Alliance (SCA), a business networking group, was founded in 1978. Despite its politically-influential membership, the organization was likely not a household name until the group’s board president Doug Hilberman published his thoughts on the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests on June 26.
“Speaking for the Sonoma County Alliance and as a community member, I strongly believe that ALL lives matter,” Hillberman’s post, now available on the Internet Archive, begins.
Hillberman’s post, specifically the use of “all lives matter,” a statement which Black Lives Matter supporters say diminishes the greater oppression faced by people of color in America, went somewhat viral as local social media users responded in outrage. Hillberman resigned from the SCA one day after his blog post. Since then, a number of SCA members have left the group as community members continue to criticize the organization’s lack of diversity and past actions.
Brian Ling, the SCA’s executive director, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
A list of SCA members published by the North Bay Business Journal in Sept. 2019 shows that Bollinger, the Business Journal’s publisher, was an SCA board member and that Business Journal itself was a sustaining member of SCA, a distinction which costs $1,475 per year, according to the SCA’s website. Another employee of Sonoma Media Investments and the Press Democrat held a general membership, according to the 2019 membership list.
For the past two weeks, the Press Democrat has covered the SCA saga without mentioning that the paper’s parent company and the Business Journal were SCA members.
The Bohemian emailed Bollinger and other SMI employees at 1:02pm this afternoon. Since then, the Press Democrat and the Business Journal have updated recent articles with an announcement of SMI’s decision to leave the SCA. An editor’s note at the bottom of the articles states that “This article has been modified to include information about the departure of the Journal from the Sonoma County Alliance.”
In an interview Wednesday, Bollinger said that the company’s choice to leave had “been developing for the past few days.” Bollinger acknowledged that the company’s previous articles should have disclosed the company’s SCA membership.
“In retrospect, in the first stories that we did… it would have been best if we had said ‘North Bay Business Journal is a member’ and ‘SMI is a member’… but the fact is that we’ve resigned from the organization so that we can focus on this important community discussion around inclusion, equity and diversity,” Bollinger said.
“We feel that as news organizations… it’s our responsibility to cover this important conversation around these issues: Inclusion, diversity, equity. And we will do what we do all the time is that we [act as] an uninterested party. We want to cover all sides. We feel that we could not do that and be [SCA] members at the same time,” Bollinger continued.
“We have taken the step of resigning our membership so that, as we move into a robust discussion and real actions to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in our communities, the Business Journal can, as always, fulfill its fundamental role as impartial observer,” Bollinger said in a separate prepared statement.
Longtime readers of the Bohemian will know that we’ve long been critical of the SMI publications’ coverage of the company’s lead investor, Darius Anderson. Anderson, who owns Platinum Advisors, a lobbying firm with offices in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Washington DC, assembled the group of investors behind SMI in 2011.
Despite Anderson’s prominence in state and local politics, SMI publications rarely disclose who Anderson is working for in coverage of Platinum Advisors’ clients.
Last year, for instance, the Bohemian reported on the Rebuild North Bay Foundation, a nonprofit Anderson founded shortly after the Oct. 2017 wildfires. Although the SMI publications frequently ran articles about Rebuild—and the fact that Anderson founded the organization—they never mentioned that PG&E hired Anderson’s Platinum Advisors lobbying firm between March 2018 and Nov. 1, 2019, or that Rebuild was mostly funded by a $2 million contribution from PG&E in December 2017.
Asked whether SMI publications should disclose Anderson’s lobbying clients and business ventures similar to how they are now mentioning the company’s former SCA membership, Bollinger defended SMI’s track record.
“Journalists face this all the time: what to disclose and when. I think we’re a very open organization. [Anderson’s] relationships are widely known, so I can’t speak specifically to which story and when and what, but I can tell you this: Darius is committed to community journalism 110 percent,” Bollinger said, noting that many local newspapers around the country are shutting down.
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