Press "Enter" to skip to content

Advertiser-Friendly Journalism At Sonoma Magazine

A polite term for it is “puffery.” It's also known as “advertiser-friendly journalism.” It has often plagued the magazine industry and especially since the 1920s when President Calvin Coolidge observed that advertising was “part of the greater work of regeneration and redemption of mankind.” The editors and publishers at Sonoma magazine would agree. Advertiser-friendly journalism is on exhibit all year-round in the magazine, and especially now in the (July/August 2018) summer issue, when, according to editor-in-chief, Catherine Barnett, “the pace slows.” Tell that to the farmers and farm workers who labor eight-to-ten hours a day in fields, packing sheds and at farmers markets in July and August. Tell that to those who work in vineyards, hotels and restaurants. They would not recognize the pace that Barnett describes, and not the place that’s depicted in the glossy pages of magazine, either. Sonoma magazine looks at the world from the top down. In a word, it’s elitist.

The summer issue is similar to the issues that are published at other times of the year. All year long, the magazine has a format and rarely divagates from it. That’s not a bad thing, though the format of Sonoma doesn’t really allow for thinking and writing outside the box that it has created for itself.

Much of the material wouldn’t pass for journalism as practiced at The San Francisco Chronicle and The Los Angeles Times. It can often be a string of adverbs and adjectives tied together with verbs and nouns and meant to sell products like wine, services like health care, and experiences like eating, and at the same time to give readers a feeling that the magazine has stroked their egos.

Sonoma offers a professional brand of advertiser-friendly journalism. There’s nothing sloppy or cheap about it, though at $5.95 a copy it’s also within the budget of many if not all Sonoma citizens and most tourists.

If there’s a picture of a person, he or she is certain to wear a smile. The advertisement for a dentist’s office shows nine smiling faces along with the slogan, “Smile Sonoma.”

Sonoma County — the magazine suggests — is inhabited by happy people who play hard, eat well and drink well. There’s a piece about Disneyland that’s described as “The Happiest Place on Earth.” At least the magazine doesn’t claim that Sonoma is the happiest place on the face of the earth.

The color photos near the heart of the summer issue show adults and children at play in the Russian River. The copy that prefaces the photos mentions the “river’s depths” and “the gentle current,” but in many places our man- and machine-made river has no depths and very little current.

Sonoma county citizens, whether they have vineyards, marijuana fields or lawns suck much of the water from the river, but that’s the kind of information not to be found in the magazine. It would likely wake readers from the “dreamy” state that the publication wants them to inhabit.

The masthead of the magazine says that it “adheres…to guidelines which required a clear distinction between editorial content and paid advertising and marketing messages,” but when I turn the pages and look at editorial content and paid adverting, I often can’t tell the difference between the two. Some of the ads look like editorial content while some editorial content looks like an ad. The art of deception is at work.

I was a regular contributor to The Press Democrat for more than a decade and worked closely with Pete Golis. I recently wrote occasional features for the paper, including one about a homeless man in Santa Rosa, another about an award-winning dairy on Llano Road and yet another about a family who aimed to farm in a way that regenerated the soil. None of those articles, or anything like them, would have appeared in the magazine. They were too close to reality, to close to mean streets and to rural fields.

Years ago, I proposed to the publisher at the PD that the newspaper create the position of public editor — The New York Times had one for many years — and that the company hire me to do the job. We had a pleasant conversation. He considered the idea and then concluded that it would “ruffle feathers” — to borrow his phrase — and ruffling feathers was precisely what he didn’t want.

Of the 162-total pages in the current issue, about half are advertisements, many of them for luxury homes and estates that go for as much as $5,975,000. Clearly, the magazine is aimed at the super-rich, though some articles are for ordinary locals as well as for tourists. Several pages cover Mexican food in an area that’s dubbed, “Sonoma County’s Mexi-Mile” and “Santa Rosa’s Mexican Food Mecca.” The editors know how to package information, but the packaging often out-shines the content.

The text for the story about the Mexican restaurants is packed with words and phrases such as “slice of heaven,” “beautiful creatures,” “marvelous,” “meaty mouthfuls” and “exquisitely tender.” Apparently the writer never had a bad or even a mediocre meal at any Mexican restaurant on Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa, where the “Mecca” is located.

And apparently no one ever had a bad experience on or around the Russian River that provides the magazine with its cover story, which is titled, “Take Me to the River.” It’s true that editor-in-chief, Catherine Barnett, mentions in her letter at the front of the magazine that there are “lingering scars “ from gravel mining and that “more than once, the Russian River has been deemed dead.”

But the overall impression that the issue gives is that the harm to the river was done in the distant past, and that, as Glen Martin writes in “A Watershed Moment,” there were “bad times for the river…But the river present is not the river past.” He adds, that the forecasts “for the future are favorable.” Four pages on, environmentally savvy county supervisor, James Gore, comes closer to the truth about the river than any one else in the magazine when he says, “We’ve completely lost touch with the River.”

To find the nuggets of pure information you have to read between the lines and look at the fine print. Page 37 has the headline “Rebuilding Sonoma County.” Part of the subhead reads, “building activity ramps up this summer.” But on the same page, the facts indicate that there is no major ramping up. Indeed, as the statistics on the same page show, 70% of the “victims" of the fires from last October “do not think they have sufficient insurance to rebuild.”

The raw data on the same page also shows that 5,300 homes burned in Sonoma County. Only 223 new homes were under construction as of the end of May 2018. And what about the word “victims?” Didn’t we, in Sonoma County, collectively decide to call people who were burned out “survivors” and not victims? I know some supervisors insist on it. If you want an intelligent in-depth article about the fires in Northern California and about efforts to rebuild, read “Sonoma’s Burning Problem” in the fall 2018 issue of Altamagazine, which has a balance of editorial content and advertising.

If and when Sonoma county becomes one big estate exclusively for the wealthy, Sonoma magazine might adhere to its formula and show smiling people, million-dollar homes and Mexican restaurants where one can go slumming. In the meantime, there are a whole lot of citizens who are in need of a magazine that reflects their lives and their world in which families are separated at the U.S. Mexican border and where some kids go to sleep hungry at night and want to be treated with dignity and not given a hand-out.


  1. Pat Kittle August 1, 2018

    …the Anderson Valley Advertiser’s unfriendly journalist’s review of “Advertiser-Friendly Journalism.”


    • Jonah Raskin August 2, 2018

      I’m glad you’re smiling, Pat.

  2. izzy August 2, 2018

    Over the past few decades, Sonoma County – and much of the Bay Area – has been overcome by aspirations likely to never be fully realized. But someone has to do the cheerleading, and the targeted audience is still large enough to keep it all rolling.

    Let them eat cake!

    • Jonah Raskin August 2, 2018

      And didn’t the woman who made that comment about cake have her head chopped off and then couldn’t eat anything at all?

  3. Jonah Raskin August 2, 2018

    And doesn’t someone also have to point out that there are alternatives to cheerleading.
    I read the Boston Globe online; there is little cheerleading and lots of saying what’s wrong in the Commonwealth except on the subject of Tom Brady and the Red Sox.

  4. Andrew Scully August 6, 2018

    Thank you Jonah. Nice piece. Highlights some of the messy and inconvenient incongruities behind the curtains in Stepford…oops, I meant Somemoremoney, oops, I meant Pleasantville County.

    • Jonah Raskin August 7, 2018

      I like the way you put that, sir, with a sense of humor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *