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A Napa Valley media nightmare

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As you may know, I was editor of the St. Helena Star for several years until late September 2020, when I was laid off for financial reasons and decided to retire. I’m writing for several reasons:

1. To support Jesse Duarte as editor of the Star; he is a fine journalist and has been and will continue to do a great job covering St. Helena;

2. To wish Sean Scully good luck on his new job, which begins in early December; I’m lucky to count him as a friend, glad he is remaining in Calistoga (doing his new job remotely), and know that he cares desperately for local newspapers, including the Napa Valley Register, St. Helena Star and The Weekly Calistogan;

3. To warn you of a threat to these fine local papers, i.e., Alden Global Capital’s effort to buy a controlling interest in these newspapers’ parent company, Lee Enterprises, which touts itself as the leading provider of local news, information and advertising in 77 markets in 26 states.

Vanity Fair called Alden “the hedge fund vampire that bleeds newspapers dry.” Its favorite tactics include selling off property, offering aggressive buyouts and layoffs, slashing local newsgathering budgets, jacking up subscription rates, and leaving behind a withered husk of a newspaper.

If the sale goes through, Alden Global Capital will further decimate these local publications, including cutting newsroom staff. The newsroom staff at the St. Helena Star is one, Jesse Duarte. When I was first hired at the St. Helena Star in August 2006, I was joining a staff of four, editor Doug Ernst, reporter Jesse Duarte, feature editor Carolyn Younger and Susan McWilliams, who was an editor. The Star’s staff has already been decimated under Lee’s ownership – all in the name of cutting costs and making more money.

It could get worse, though, the local Star offices, currently at 1200 Main St., could be closed and Duarte could be assigned to work at the Napa Valley Register offices. The same is true for Cynthia Sweeney, the editor of The Weekly Calistogan. They could close her office and reassign her to a desk in Napa. Obviously, that doesn’t work for local news coverage. Readers might whine that boots on the ground are essential to local journalism, but that’s not maximizing profits.

To cut distribution costs, the new owners could abandon the concept of a weekly newspaper, stop publishing both the Star and Calistogan and combine them into the new “Upvalley Herald,” which could be included with Thursday’s edition of the Register. Local subscribers might squawk about the loss of their beloved papers, but it’s hard to hear their complaints from Wall Street. Readers would be told to just buy a jacked-up Register subscription and quit bellyaching.

After a time, the new owners could stop publishing the “Upvalley Herald” and just include St. Helena and Calistoga news in the Napa Valley Register.

Does this sound like a nightmare to you? Do you value the Star’s tradition of local journalism dating back to 1874? Do you revere the work of Starr Baldwin, Vin and Bill Brenner and the journalists dedicated to carrying on their legacies, including most recently, Jesse Duarte?

Then don’t sit back and let this happen.

Tell Lee Enterprises Chairman Mary E. Junck and its President and CEO Kevin D. Mowbry not to sell out your paper to a financial vampire. They can be reached at Lee Enterprises Inc., 4600 E. 53rd St., Davenport, IA 52807 or online at Lee.net/contact.

David Stoneberg

Hidden Valley Lake

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