Chris Fusco, an award-winning journalist who has led newsrooms in two of the nation’s largest cities, has been named executive editor of The Press Democrat.
Eric Johnston, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, The Press Democrat’s parent company, said Fusco was chosen from “an incredibly talented field of candidates,” a measure of the company’s reputation in the media world.
“I am confident that Chris’ unique combination of experience and talent – not only strong community journalism but also audience engagement, the technological evolution of our industry and diverse representation in stories and staff – will be a strong addition to our incredibly talented news team,” Johnston said.
It will be a different sort of assignment for Fusco, who spent 20 years at the Chicago Sun-Times (in the nation’s third largest city), including three years as editor-in-chief, and the past 18 months at the Houston Chronicle (in America’s fourth largest city), including three months as interim editor-in-chief.
Between those two upper-echelon, legacy-media stints, Fusco came West to run a digital news startup, Lookout Santa Cruz.
None of those jobs is an obvious comparison to helming The Press Democrat, a mid-sized daily paper in a region that offers its own unique blend of urban, agricultural and wildland environments.
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“To me, there’s really no other executive editor job like this in America,” Fusco said. “When you look at the size and the amount of investment in the room, for the market size, it’s almost unprecedented. Especially in today’s environment.”
Fusco called Sonoma County “a great news ecosystem,” pointing to a vibrant food and wine scene that exists in parallel to a sizable immigrant Latino population that doesn’t always get to share in the bounty.
“The newspaper is there to do what great organizations do, and hold power to account, and lift up the folks who need lifting up,” Fusco said. “To me, the great thing about news organizations is that if we do our jobs well, we get the haves to care about the have nots. And I think the Press Democrat and its sibling publications really embody that — at a time when it’s more important now than ever, given the political climate in America.”
Fusco pointed to another advantage at SMI — the diversity of coverage represented in a constellation of publications that includes the North Bay Business Journal, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, the Sonoma Index-Tribune, the Sonoma County Gazette, La Prensa Sonoma and Sonoma Magazine, the company’s bimonthly regional magazine.
“It gives you a lot of levers to pull, from both a coverage standpoint and a business standpoint,” he said.
Fusco grew up in Alsip, Ill., one block south of Chicago city limits.
“I would say I’m a southside Chicagoan, except some southside Chicagoans would take exception to that,” he observed.
Fusco had thoughts of law school when he enrolled at Illinois-Wesleyan, a small college in Bloomington, Ill., with “a really nice weekly student newspaper.” His future shifted when he took a four-course journalism sequence taught by his faculty adviser. He was hooked.
Fusco interned, then worked, at the Pantograph daily paper in Bloomington, and typed his way to the Northwest Herald in the northwest Chicago exurbs. He then moved to its nextdoor competitor, the Daily Herald in Arlington, Ill., and finally to the Sun-Times.
After climbing a few rungs there, he wound up in a state agency beat and soon found himself immersed in the story of the decade in Illinois — the corruption scandal and public trial of then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was eventually removed from office, convicted and jailed for eight years.
“Rod took office with this mantra of ‘it’s not going to be business as usual,’” Fusco said. “And as one of his political foes ended up saying after he got indicted, ‘It sure wasn’t business as usual. It was worse.’”
Covering the Blagojevich drama, at a time when the Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune were duking it out in the daily headlines, cast Fusco into a career-long focus on investigative muckraking.
It hasn’t always been the heyday of journalism. When Fusco joined Sun-Times management as managing editor in 2016, the publication was at a low point. The staff had been slashed dramatically.
“Here I was in a newsroom of 55, with sort of this local ownership group,” Fusco recalled. “Fast-forward four years later, when I left, and somehow we had managed to find some grant funding, add investors who believed in the mission of the paper and squeeze some savings on our printing contract from the Tribune, and we grew that newsroom from 55 to 98.”
Fusco is hoping to work similar miracles in Santa Rosa.
Johnston, the SMI publisher, said he was struck by how easy his conversations were with Fusco, whether they were talking about investigative reporting or mentoring or data analytics. Part of the interview process, both men said, was a panel interview with four prominent members of the community. After the interview, the panel asked each candidate if there was a question that went unasked.
“Chris instead asked the panelists a question – along the lines of, ‘What would Sonoma County be without The Press Democrat?’” Johnston said. “It really resonated with the panel, all of whom unanimously supported his hire.”
Fusco and his wife, the accomplished travel writer Lori Rackl, have visited Napa and Sonoma a few times, and he called the North Bay “the best of all worlds,” with its hiking-trail network, rugged coastline and proximity to San Francisco.
Fusco and Rackl do a lot of cycling, and they are confident the rolling hills of Sonoma County will be a little more inviting than the Houston metroplex. Fusco said they’re already house-shopping.
“My grandfather, who lived to be almost 98, when he was young had an opportunity to go to California and work for the Gallo family,” Fusco said. “And he never took it. So I feel like there’s something in my 100% Sicilian genes that draws me to those vineyards. Not that I want to make wine. But I sure like riding a bicycle through them.”