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September, 2006


Coastal Newspaper Battle
Newspapers fight over coverage of Bodega Bay Point Reyes Light expands north as online Navigator hires Light's former owner as writer

Two small weekly newspapers have begun battling for readers along the Sonoma County coast, offering subscribers vastly different choices for their community news.
The Bodega Bay Navigator, under 10-year veteran Editor Joel Hack, prides itself on scrappy, ear-to-the-ground coverage of local news and community events.

Thirty-five miles south, the Point Reyes Light, under new owner Robert Plotkin, seeks out compelling stories that will interest readers in the tiny towns along the southern Sonoma County and northern Marin County coasts.

The competition for readers began in mid-June, when the Navigator, circulation 1,000, stopped printing its weekly newspaper and switched to an online-only publication.

Almost immediately, Plotkin began mailing free copies of the Light, circulation 4,300, to every household in Bodega Bay, offering it as an alternative to the Navigator.

"The Bodega Bay newspaper readership was orphaned by the ending of the Navigator. I want to adopt them," Plotkin said.

Now the Navigator has recruited David Mitchell, former owner and editor of the Point Reyes Light, to write a column for the Navigator.

Mitchell, a longtime friend of Hack's, published the Light for 30 years before he sold it to Plotkin last year. The sale allowed Mitchell to continue writing his lively column about west Marin happenings.

But after a shouting match in February, Plotkin fired Mitchell and filed for a restraining order against him. Mitchell has threatened to sue Plotkin for breach of contract, and Plotkin is considering legal action of his own.

Mitchell's long tenure and well-developed sources in west Marin put the Navigator in a position to cover Point Reyes and the rest of the Light's home turf.

"We've always covered west Marin, just not as in-depth and detailed as the Point Reyes Light did," Hack said. "If readers respond to us and want that service, we'll be happy to provide it."

The rivalry between the two newspapers comes after Plotkin's offer to buy the Navigator fell through.

Hack put the Navigator up for sale about three months ago. Plotkin offered to buy it, but his offer was low because the Navigator was facing declining advertising and circulation.

Hack eventually backed out of the deal, and decided to continue the Navigator as a Web-only community newspaper. It's important for a community to have its own local source of news, Hack said.

"A community newspaper is like a personal friend," Hack said. "It has a long history, and remembers the things that have happened. It keeps the public discussion on track in terms of present news. It's supportive and supported."

Plotkin said he had considered expanding the Point Reyes Light into Bodega Bay even before the opportunity came to buy the Navigator. When the sale fell through, he just picked up where he'd left off, Plotkin said.

"The Point Reyes Light was looking for a way we could expand, and Bodega Bay made the best sense," Plotkin said. "It's very similar to the other coastal villages we cover, and we share the same school district."

Both publications say they're doing well.

Hack is pleased with the response to the online Navigator and says the site is becoming interactive more quickly than he had anticipated.

Readers have responded, not just with letters to the editor, but with news tips, questions and historic information. In one instance, a previously unknown witness to an accidental drowning stepped forward with new information.

"I've received more letters heaping praise than in any comparable period with the print edition," Hack said. "The online edition does things paper could never do. There's an immediate response. Breaking news is posted the next day instead of waiting for the weekly news cycle."

Plotkin said the Point Reyes Light is becoming a presence in Bodega Bay.

"We've been picking up subscriptions," Plotkin said. "People seem really excited to be getting a paper with beautifully written and beautifully reported stories."

He said the Light will write the most interesting stories that come out of Bodega Bay, but probably won't have Bodega Bay stories in every week's paper.

"People are pining for some kind of connectedness and the thing that has always connected people is stories," Plotkin said. "I want to connect all these communities through compelling stories - not just inform them but connect them."

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