SANTA ROSA, California — The checkerboard carpets at The Press Democrat newspaper here in Northern California are on their third owner, well-trodden by a talented group of journalists who drew their paychecks first from the New York Times Regional Media Group, then briefly from an outfit called Halifax, and now a local owner, Sonoma Media Investments LLC.
The local ownership has kept hope alive inside this newsroom amid a national media landscape dotted by news deserts, the name coined for those cities and towns that have lost their local newspapers to disruption from the internet and failed efforts at new business models.
Santa Rosa is a city of more than 175,000, and its paper reaches people throughout Sonoma County and counties to the north, chronicling the happenings here that include tragedies like last fall’s catastrophic fires that killed 24 and destroyed nearly 5,300 homes. So when Steve Falk, the publisher and CEO of the local newspaper here took the baton Wednesday as a guest conductor from Mormon Tabernacle Choir conductor and music director Mack Wilberg at a performance Wednesday, it marked a moment of healing for those in attendance, maybe especially for those who lost their homes.
It was also a moment of recognition for the role the journalists played in conveying life-saving, minute-by-minute information to its stunned readership during the fires.
The town has survived. The newspaper has survived. Together they are helping each other through difficult circumstances. Where houses once stood, weeds now own the foundation footprints. Some homeowners wishing to rebuild are still battling insurance companies in California’s out-of-this-world-expensive housing market.
"Our hearts reach out to you," said Lloyd Newell, whose message as the voice of the choir's weekly broadcast "Music and the Spoken Word" reached the 3,000-plus gathered at the Green Music Center down the road from Santa Rosa in Rohnert Park.
The choir's performance was dedicated to those who have lost loved ones, homes and peace of mind from the devastating fire. As Newell said, music can be the means of bringing "Peace, joy, hope, healing."
The healing is still needed.
I dropped in at the Press Democrat newsroom some hours before the concert. These were my colleagues for 13 years, and we shared hugs, memories and stories about the work they did covering the fire that brought them a Pulitzer Prize. Eyes welled up as they recounted the lives lost and the sense of place that hasn’t fully returned. The work they are doing remains difficult, the hours long, and chronicling the recovery feels like a story that won’t end.
Said one editor: It will be a decade before things come fully back.
Everywhere in Napa and Sonoma, time is being marked in terms of the fire. There is life before Oct. 8 when the Tubbs fire ignited, and time after. One reporter called it Northern California’s own 9/11 moment. Everyone has a story, from the Lemmondrops Children’s Boutique worker in Yountville — 50 years a resident and her home was spared — to the coffee shop patron who said he was ready to buy a house, but lost the chance when the fires hit.
He still needs to heal not just from loss, but from opportunity lost.
Two nights before the Sonoma County performance, the choir performed in the south Bay Area and brought healing of a different sort. Members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus joined the choir to perform during its sound check, a coming together unforeseen a decade earlier when Proposition 8 and the definition of marriage became a wedge issue between the gay community and church community.
The guest conductor this night was Dr. Timothy Seelig, the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus who told Deseret News and Church News reporter Jason Swensen, "It doesn't heal everything, but it is a step on the part of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to open the doors for this rehearsal to the Gay Men's Chorus."
They raised their voices together in song.
The day following the Sonoma choir performance, a gunman entered a newsroom at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and killed five people. Security was tightened in newsrooms around the nation, including ours in Salt Lake City. And now we also mourn and seek healing from this tragedy. Is it possible?
Some journalists are angry at President Donald Trump for his message of condolence after the attack on journalists. He’s verbally attacked journalists as enemies of the people. Who is he to offer condolences now, they say.
Through difficulty we learn new things about each other. A resident of one of the wealthy burned-out communities of Sonoma County is temporarily living down the hill in a mobile home community. Her new neighbor told me it’s providing a new perspective, breaking down barriers neither knew existed. She said now they are all looking out for each other.
Tragedy can bring humility. Music can soften hard hearts and ease burdens, if only temporarily. But during these periods of vulnerability, empathy can be found, bridging a gap in understanding.
The choir first came to California in 1896. Ten years later San Francisco would be rocked by an earthquake and fire that is still talked about among the Golden State’s residents. But time healed that painful experience. And the music played again in San Francisco.2 comments on this story
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is known for singing with one voice. It closed its concerts last week with two signature songs, “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Both are anthems of overcoming grief and adversity, of knowing loss but pushing forward to a bright future.
Our nation is built upon many voices, with the freedom to shout loudly that which we support or challenge. Tragedy will come. So will disagreement. Yet when room is made for a guest conductor in each of our lives, understanding will be born, and healing will come.