To you it is the idyllic landscape practically on your doorstep, and the towns that seem miraculously unspoiled. To us it’s home, and a place that is under a chronic state of siege.
The real estate out here in West Marin has gone berserk. Second and third homes stand empty where our neighbors used to be. Most of us couldn’t afford to live here if we had to buy in now — or if we hadn’t lucked into parental homes or below-market rents. Traffic is increasing, and Carmel-ization is a pervasive dread.
The resulting tensions are ripe journalistic fodder. But instead of just covering the story, the local paper—the Point Reyes Light—itself has become a focal point of them. Until recently, the Light was almost as iconic as the landscape it inhabits. It won a Pulitzer back in 1979, but that was less important to readers here than the weekly news about runoff into Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore’s expansion plans.
A couple of years ago the Light changed hands, and the new owner became an embodiment of the worst fears for the place the newspaper used to symbolize. Now West Marin has a second weekly, the Citizen, and it has made a strong start with the Light s disaffected readers.
Few expect the two papers to survive for long. In part this is a story about personality, and how it filters through a paper and shapes the response of readers in a small town. But more basically it is about what newspapers ultimately are for: journalism as a service to a community versus journalism as a vehicle for the ambitions of writers and editors.
The Reality of West Marin
You’ve heard the clichés: nude beaches, aging hippies, that whole routine. The truth about West Marin is a lot more interesting. It is an eclectic mix of ranchers, artists, academics, service workers, and industrious back-to-the-landers who came out here in the 1970s and pretty much have set the tone since. The area is unincorporated, which means there’s no local government. An inventive civic culture has filled the void.
So too, until recently, did the Light . Under Dave Mitchell, who owned the paper from 1975 (with a brief hiatus) until 2005, the Light became a local institution, not always loved but almost always read. The Light was where people found out about garage sales and events at the Dance Palace community center. The weekly Sheriff’s Calls provided a laconic window into local life, from cows in the road to restraining orders against ex-spouses. The photographs by Art Rogers, who follows families through the years, provided a gentle, poignant sense of time and change.
The soul of the paper was the letters. People out here are well-read and not lacking in opinions, and Mitchell printed almost all their missives. Sometimes they ran on for pages; debates would go on for weeks. The lighthouse on the paper’s masthead was the closest thing to the town’s visual image of itself.
Mitchell himself is a gangly man with a bit of a stoop and a long brooding face. At the paper, he was not a saint by any means. He rode his hobbyhorses and had a thumb on the reportorial scale, as most editors of small publications do. He was moody and not always nice. But no one ever questioned his commitment to this place. “Dave was a son of a gun but he was our son of a gun,” one resident said later.
In recent years, however, Mitchell had seemed more stooped than usual, and withdrawn. It was well known, too, that the Light had been skirting financial trouble. It wasn’t quite a deathwatch, but people were wondering if one might be coming.
The New Owner
Robert Plotkin appeared out of nowhere. What we knew was from the papers: a former assistant district attorney in Monterey County who had gone to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and then moved to Bolinas. Now he was buying the Light for half a million dollars.
It seemed like a lot of money, but it meant the Light would live. People reached out to Plotkin, invited him to dinner, offered advice. But listening didn’t appear to be his strongest suit. Jim Kravets, the managing editor he inherited from Mitchell, went with him to a harvest festival and pointed out people he should meet. Plotkin replied that if anyone wanted to talk with the editor of the Light , they could approach him. (Kravets left the Light and later became managing editor of the Citizen.)
Plotkin also showed a tendency toward braggadocio and self-dramatization. We read that he would be the “Che Guevera of literary revolutionary journalism.” The Light would become the “New Yorker of the West.” Not only that, he was going to bestow upon us the “best and brightest” of young journalism grads—a phrase he used without irony or apparent awareness of the need for it.
It did seem a bit of toot for an unproven horn. To find out more, I invited Plotkin on to my weekly show on KWMR-FM, the community station in West Marin. (It was the first of three such interviews.) He can be sweet and boyish, but also snarky and dismissive.
On the show I asked about the literary journalism. What does it have to do with the weekly fare of the Light — a meeting of the county board of supervisors, for example? Well, he said, Joan Didion wrote about county supervisor meetings. Look at her.
Joan Didion? She of the clinical dispassion and acidic eye? Didion was writing about locals, but not for them. She was trotting them out for the amusement of readers in Los Angeles and New York. That Plotkin hadn’t thought about the difference struck me as a little ominous.
News That Created Fits
Plotkin urged his staff to stir controversy. But what came out was often just irritating gestures and off-key notes. At first it was small things, such as the picture caption that called a French cheese maker a “surrender monkey,” and clumsily provocative headlines such as FCC INDECENCY FINES FOR KWMR GO UP 1000%. In fact the station had been subject to no such fines—the agency had increased fines
There was a constant drip of this, combined with a self-congratulation that bordered on self-parody. We got encomiums to Plotkin’s own stewardship: THE NEW LIGHT: ONE YEAR RETROSPECTIVE was the cover headline on Nov. 9, 2006. But there were no chuckles when Plotkin ran a cartoon that, without evidence, trashed local merchants for gouging customers. Merchants here, as elsewhere, struggle in a world of Home Depot and Costco. Their prices generally are reasonable, and some give generously to local causes.
The merchants were incensed. They dumped their stacks of papers at the Light 's office and told Plotkin in effect to sell them himself. He dropped the subject, but bad feelings lingered.
Rumblings Among the Readers
It was a sign of the bond that had existed between the paper and the town that people held a meeting at the Dance Palace to try to repair the widening breach. About 50 showed up on a winter evening, and readers spoke with eloquence and palpable hurt. “When people used to complain to me about Dave Mitchell,” one person said, “I’d say, ‘The Point Reyes Light is what holds this community together. It is the center. It is the glue.’… I don’t find that to be the case anymore. It breaks my heart.”
The letters were a particular sore point. Plotkin wasn’t running all of them the way Mitchell did. He wasn’t even getting back to people. But beyond such complaints was a sense the paper wasn’t written for them anymore. Plotkin was staffing it with unpaid journalism school interns, whom he lured with promises of literary glory. “Every scene piece will be of Talk of the Town quality,” said his pitch to the UC Berkeley journalism school. “Every story…will be written with the sophistication and wit of the Economist.”
Leave aside whether he himself had the editorial chops. Plotkin was assuring a steady flow of reporters who had no connection to the place and who were auditioning for jobs elsewhere. Readers picked this up as a distanced quality—a stage whisper to prospective employers, and sometimes a slightly mocking tone. “They know how to write,” one person said, “but they don’t know how to write for the community.”
Plotkin was by turns conciliatory and defensive. He wasn’t printing more letters because he wasn’t getting more, he said. “That’s what is disquieting to me,” another person replied. “People are just … fading away.”
That comment made me think of something a former congressional staffer once told me. He had known his boss was in trouble (he lost the next election) when he stopped receiving angry letters. If such a moment came for the Light —a moment at which people started to drop out emotionally and look for other options—it probably was the story on local Mexican immigrants. The story included a picture of a woman who was identified as undocumented. Another picture showed a 17-year-old boy—a familiar presence around town—who was described as having undocumented people in his household. I and many residents were stunned. This was the time of immigration raids in the county. To out these neighbors was embarrassing and unbelievable.
Then there was the redesign—clean, corporate and generic. The quirky homegrown quality was gone, along with the lighthouse on the masthead. It was almost as though Plotkin had kenned the worst fears of local readers for and made the paper a visual embodiment of them.
The New Paper in Town
That guy you see on main street on Thursday afternoons, order pad in hand and delivering stacks of papers from the back of his car? That’s Joel Hack, and he looks a little like a Joel Hack — short, scruffy, not much troubled by sartorial concerns. He has a gruff good humor but also conveys the impression it would be better not to mess with him. Plotkin did.
For 11 years, Hack has put out a small paper in Bodega Bay, called the Navigator. Plotkin made a play for the territory. Then he included Hack in a lawsuit against Mitchell over a noncompete clause. These moves did not go over well. With help from Plotkin’s former printer (there’s not room for every subplot, but you get the drift) Hack started the West Marin Citizen. It is the Light ’s journalistic opposite — light on literary pretense, heavy on straight news and local opinion, and chockablock with meeting reports and other local miscellany.
And pictures. Hack learned journalism in high school as a photographer at a suburban Chicago weekly where the editor told him to get as many people in the paper as possible, and to “get all the names.” The Citizen has lots of both. The design is happily cluttered. Hack admits he hates to “leave stuff out.”
The energy in town seems to be shifting toward the Citizen. Neither paper wants to release circulation figures, but several merchants told me the Citizen has been outselling the Light over the counter. (The Light seems to do better with tourists.) In fairness, the latter has benefited from the competition. The paper is more news-based again and the sophomoric lapses have become less frequent. That’s partly because Plotkin has hired a managing editor and pulled back from daily operations.
His focus now is the Coastal Traveler, a kind of tourist guide that for years has helped support the Light. Under Mitchell it was a newsprint giveaway. Plotkin has made it a glossy lifestyle mag with Rolex and Ducati ads. The Traveler provides a venue for his breathy clichés about us locals (our towns are “Stalingrads of anticorporate resistance” and for paeans to his motorcycle (“I loved it like a boy loves a hottie working for Médecins Sans Frontières”).
Meanwhile we readers have something unusual in the United States today—two competing local papers. Such weeklies generally are rare bright spots in a newspaper picture gone pretty grim. Even in an Internet age—perhaps because it is an Internet age—such papers seem to be connecting in ways that larger media don’t.
Just possibly what people are hungry for in journalism is what they seek in their physical environment as well—a sense of familiarity and most of all place. If people want the New Yorker they get the New Yorker, and many out here do. But that kind of writing is the language of strangers. From neighbors they expect something else.
Left: Joel Hack Right Robert Plotkin
Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly and YES! magazines. His weekly show, America Offline, runs on KWMR-FM in West Marin. Another version of this story appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review.