Eric Johnston, a veteran media executive who started in the news industry when he was in high school in Lodi, has been hired as the new chief executive officer of Sonoma Media Investments, replacing the retiring Steve Falk, company leaders announced Friday morning.
A California native, Johnston has been an industry leader for nearly 25 years with a successful track record of building strong community connections, growing revenue, transitioning newsrooms to the digital age and finding creative marketing solutions for advertisers in markets across the West.
Johnston’s work in three different media organizations has helped legacy newspapers — including the Modesto Bee and dozens of others — expand market share through meaningful journalism and strategic relationships with community leaders and advertisers, said Darius Anderson, managing partner of Sonoma Media Investments.
That is the parent company of The Press Democrat, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, Sonoma Index-Tribune, Sonoma magazine, North Bay Business Journal, La Prensa and the Sonoma County Gazette, as well as their digital sites.
“Protecting local journalism has been the priority for Sonoma Media Investments, starting with our acquisition of The Press Democrat 10 years ago. I’m excited about Eric’s arrival because he, too, understands that priority,” Anderson said.
“He is a seasoned veteran with a firm grasp on community involvement, finding solutions for our advertisers and recognizing the need to guide our newsroom to a successful digital future. Eric’s experience will make us a stronger team across our entire SMI operation.”
In an email to SMI staffers Friday, Falk said company leaders did an exhaustive national search for the next CEO, interviewing local, regional and national candidates.
Johnston, 51, has a journalism degree from California State University, Fresno and spent his first three years as a community newspaper photojournalist at the Lodi News-Sentinel. In the mid-1990s, he transitioned to the fast-growing digital side of journalism that catapulted him to leadership positions in the McClatchy Co.
He became publisher at the Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star in 2009 before joining Seattle-based Pioneer News Group as chief operating officer in 2014. In that role, he directed the work of more than 24 publications and 500 employees in five Northwest states.
Pioneer was acquired by the Adams Publishing Group, and Johnston became president of that company’s Western Division overseeing operations in several states from 2017-2021.
Last year, he opened Latent Edge Advisors in the Bay Area, a consulting firm that worked with organizations to boost revenue and audience engagement.
Johnston starts his duties Oct. 31.
He and his wife, Susan, look forward to relocating to the Santa Rosa area and “getting involved in local organizations and events and being part of this rich, vibrant community,” he said.
“Sonoma Media Investments has done an incredible job over the past decade of forging strong relationships with Sonoma County communities; relationships that will help inform our future,” he said. “Our team will be innovative, engaged and adaptable, allowing us to continue to serve our communities for decades to come with locally focused, relevant news and information from diverse voices and perspectives.”
Johnston praised The Press Democrat and the entire SMI portfolio for a strong commitment to consequential community journalism.
“Around the country, local journalism — the last line of defense for our democracy — is at a critical juncture,” he said. “Sonoma County is fortunate to have a local and community-focused ownership with SMI.
“I am proud to lead the next chapter and will give my every effort to protecting and preserving such an important part of the community landscape.”
Johnston will succeed Falk, who retires from his post as CEO and publisher at the end of the year. He’s held those roles since SMI acquired the newspaper in November 2012.
“This year marks my 50th year in the newspaper/media business, not including several years as a newspaper boy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,” said Falk, who’s been a tireless advocate for Sonoma County and especially its philanthropic organizations.
“I’ve worked at family-owned newspapers on the East Coast, helped launch USA Today and was the CEO of the San Francisco Newspaper Agency for several years. But moving to Sonoma County and heading up our local group of daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and digital products has been the most rewarding.
“At a time when over 2,500 newspapers have failed across the country, we continue to invest in local journalism,” Falk added. “Today, we are one of the few thriving, debt-free media companies in the country. I’m very proud of that.”
Selecting his successor was a daunting task, Falk acknowledged.
“But I am confident Eric will continue to prioritize community journalism and support the entire SMI staff that has made these products some of the best and most-awarded in the country, including a 2018 Pulitzer Prize.”
The SMI operation and Sonoma County will miss Falk, Anderson said.
“I’m grateful for Steve’s steady leadership during the good times, as well as the challenging times over the past decade, especially as we weathered wildfires and navigated through a global pandemic,” Anderson said.
“I am thankful for his many contributions and am very happy he will play an important role in bridging the transition to Eric in the weeks ahead.”