Atkinson retiring as SoCoNews publisher and CEO

By Zoe Strickland, Managing Editor, SoCoNews, March 16, 2022

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Rollie Atkinson, a 40-year veteran of local news, is retiring from his position as CEO and publisher of SoCoNews, the online descendent of Sonoma West Times & News and the Sebastopol Times, and the Healdsburg Tribune.

For Atkinson, 71, his post hasn’t been defined by personal accomplishments or accolades, but rather how he’s seen the community come together.

“Forty years in Sonoma County, that’s a lot of change,” he said. “That’s a lot of accomplishments, it’s a lot of challenges and it’s a lot of failures too. It’s a lot of natural disasters like fires and floods, businesses that came and went. It’s all about how a community grows and evolves.

“What you do makes a difference because if you stay focused on the people that are making things happen, the people that are committed to their community … you’re always where the action is. Sometimes it might be a crime scene but sometimes it might be a parade,” Atkinson said, speaking to what’s kept him engaged in local journalism. “It’s different generations coming together and celebrating their community. It’s being part of a community that shows a lot of caring for one another.”

Atkinson began as sports editor of The Healdsburg Tribune in late 1982 after moving to Sonoma County from Maryland in 1981. Prior to coming to Sonoma County, he worked at the then-daily Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Maryland.

“It’s hard to make enemies at the sports desk … You’re a ‘homer’ to the worst degree — you always want the Greyhounds, Tigers, Lions, Jaguars or Eagles to be the winning team,” he said, noting that being sports editor was one of his favorite jobs.

From there, Atkinson rose up the ranks, becoming news editor of the Tribune in 1987 and eventually general manager of the Tribune and The Windsor Times in 1989, both owned by Lesher Communications at the time. Atkinson went on to become the regional general manager for Lesher Communications, overseeing its five Sonoma County-based newspapers.

Atkinson and his family founded Sonoma West Publishers in 1995 to purchase the Sebastopol Times and Russian River News after learning that Lesher planned to shut down its Sonoma County papers, Atkinson said. At the same time, Tom and Beverly Reeves and their family purchased the Healdsburg Tribune and The Windsor Times. Sonoma West Publishers purchased the Tribune and Times from the Reeves family in 2000 and, 13 years later, purchased the Cloverdale Reveille from the Hanchett family.

“There wasn’t any business plan, it wasn’t a purposeful need to grow or create an empire, it was just to keep the local news alive and keep it as locally owned as possible,” Atkinson said.

“Rollie redefined dedication to the news,” said Ray Holley, former managing editor of Sonoma West Publishers. “He kept local journalism alive in his corner of Northern California after many would have given up. We won’t see another journalist like Rollie again.”

SoCoNews, a digital news source launched in June 2021, was born out of the Cloverdale Reveille, The Healdsburg Tribune, Sonoma West Times & News and The Windsor Times.

From 2020 to 2021, Atkinson played an integral role in beginning the switch from a for-profit company to a nonprofit news organization, with him and his wife and Sonoma West co-owner Sarah Bradbury giving ownership of the newspapers and SoCoNews to the nonprofit Sonoma County Local News Initiative (SCLNI) in September 2021. Atkinson has served as publisher/CEO of the nonprofit since the ownership switch.

“Rollie proposed that conversion to a nonprofit organization might be the first step in moving our local journalism into the new realities of communication to which people were rapidly becoming accustomed,” said Nancy Dobbs, president of the SCLNI board of directors.

According to Dobbs, Atkinson’s position will be left vacant for the time being.

Throughout his time reporting on local news and managing local newspapers, Atkinson has penned hundreds of articles and editorials — he hasn’t thought much about what retirement will look like.

“I always thought I would be one of the journalists that worked forever — just keel over at the typewriter one day,” Atkinson said, noting that that happened to his grandfather, who had also been a journalist.

He said that his retirement marks the closing of one chapter and the need to open another.

“The new chapter needs a whole new energy and new views and new people,” he said. “I claim to have a lot of new ideas and views, but I think it’s better if I make room for somebody else.”

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org