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May, 2007



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Musings on the Life and Death of The Point Reyes Light
by Elizabeth Whitney

The Point Reyes Light has been through a lot of changes lately, including a dramatic reworking of its image, with a new logo and lots of color photographs on the front page. The biggest change, however, may be hardly noticeable to the average reader; it is a change in the phrase in the masthead that characterizes the newspaper.
The Point Reyes Light originally called itself "West Marin's Community Newspaper," a designation that held when Dave Mitchell bought the newspaper in 1974. After the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to the Light in 1979 for "meritorious public service" for flushing out the details of Synanon's unsavory activities, the masthead stated that it was "West Marin's Pulitzer Prize-Winning Newspaper."

Now the redesigned Point Reyes Light, under editor/publisher Robert Plotkin, has become "Marin's Pulitzer Prize-Winning Newspaper." There really is very little love for West Marin in the new Point Reyes Light and considerable love for the Pulitzer Prize. It is always mentioned in Plotkin's recruiting ads for interns and reporters ("You will be encouraged to win the Light another Pulitzer") and in the display advertising flyer he produced. In fact there is no such thing as the Point Reyes Light; there is only the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Point Reyes Light. (Sometimes he even writes it with the hyphen between Pulitzer and Prize.

It was the romance of the Pulitzer Prize-the little newspaper that could-that has made all the comings and goings at the Light since 1979 national news, putting Plotkin on the front page of the New York Times and in major features by the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Marin Independent Journal. The subsequent squabbles between Plotkin and Mitchell also made national news, the details of which are most interestingly told by Mitchell in his blog on Their legal struggle is still in process, so stay tuned.

But meanwhile, the subject that interests me is the emperor's new clothes aspect of this Pulitzer Prize. First of all, where is it? It is not at the office of the Point Reyes Light. It belongs to Dave Mitchell, who earned it. It belongs to a moment in time when the journalism elite and Synanon were deeply entangled in exposes and libel lawsuits and when Dave's endless articles on Synanon in the Light suddenly became relevant to that situation. The Pulitzer committee shone the spotlight on the Light and the media loved it and Synanon began shriveling up as the Light got lit up--and a lot of individual destinies took a turn around the wheel of karma.

Including the destiny of Robert Plotkin who showed up a year and a half ago just when Dave was ready to lay down the burden of weekly journalism and the legacy that the Light had created for him. Plotkin thought he was buying the Pulitzer Prize- Winning Point Reyes Light but there was no Pulitzer Prize, just a newspaper that before, during and after all that Synanon business was about town development and ranchers and tourists and 4-H kids and people being born and dying and businesses opening and closing and weather and land use and local elections and events at the community centers.

It was about the things that matter to a community that wants to know itself and even love its neighbors, if possible. It reflected the progression of a culture of young people becoming older people, the impact of the influx of idealistic twentysomething-year-olds who came in the late 60s and early 70s and, like a tidal wave, poured into all the nooks and crannies of the established, somewhat establishment, culture that pre-existed it.

It embraced and created controversy and even inspired a challenge in the form of a second newspaper emanating out of Point Reyes Station: the Tomales Bay Times. The TBT was an all-volunteer biweekly full of art and lively writing that published for a year exactly 30 years ago and was cherished by the community that it served. Mitchell's fixation on Synanon had something to do with the sense of neglect many community participants felt for their news-and felt strongly enough to commit to the rigors of producing 26 issues of a high-caliber alternative newspaper.

None of this lore is of interest to Robert Plotkin. The direction that he is taking the Light is over the hill with token stories on towns that represent fresh advertising territory. His new design (courtesy of a graphics firm located in West Palm Beach, Florida) serves the purposes of a print medium info-mercial, not a newspaper. Certainly not a small town community newspaper.

All the writing is done by interns who come and go, taking their jazzy feature clippings with them to pave the way to better jobs on bigger newspapers. No one who works on the Light has any perspective on any of the issues that mean anything to the people who truly live here, rooted, connected and committed to the land and each other. A meeting in Point Reyes Station last December challenged the editor of the Light to listen to articulate and impassioned complaints of community members concerned that they were losing the soul of their newspaper in the hyperbole of Plotkin's desire to create "the Sistine Chapel of journalism" (his phrase) with sensational and largely irrelevant stories. [A transcript of this meeting is available in all the West Marin libraries.]

Unfortunately, subsequent issues of Plotkin's Light stayed on the same track as before, featuring long articles irrelevant to West Marin: one on starvation in Zambia and one on teenagers from Hunter's Point in San Francisco attending a conference at the Marin Headlands. (What about our teenagers?) Two full-page features written by the editor described the graphic design firm from far-away Florida recruited to redesign the paper. The final straw, for many, was an article "outing" several Mexican residents by name and photograph, identified as undocumented. A letter reacting to this was signed by 40 Hispanic community members, business and town activists and Father Jack O'Neill of Sacred Heart Church in Olema. Father O'Neill was appalled when asked by reporter Micah Maidenberg, "What percentage of the Spanish-speak parish is undocumented?" This letter appeared in the April 19 issue of the Light.

As I write this, the wheel is still in spin and it is not clear what the local community will do about losing their newspaper. For some who are more recently arrived, it may not seem an important loss or may be chalked up to the way of the world when intimate businesses get eaten by corporate chains every day. Others consider that they have informally boycotted the paper by not buying or re-subscribing or even reading it.

If "West Marin's Community Newspaper" slowly dies, it may be easy to forget it ever existed. It is hard to remember the power of a truly tuned-in local paper, like the TBT, and only those who were actually around 30 years ago remember the vibe of that era. But I remain hopeful that those who do will verify that what came forth in the magical year 1976-1977 was the inherent richness of the community responding to the spirit of receptivity offered by the creators of the newspaper. The richness of talent and imagination and enthusiasm is still here, perhaps even in greater supply, and there is no reason why it can't emerge again if Plotkin can see "the light." Maybe it's not too late to see the lighthouse-and all that it symbolizes-back in the masthead of the Point Reyes Light.

Elizabeth Whitney was Assistant Editor of the Point Reyes Light in 1973-74 under the owner previous to Dave Mitchell (Mike Gahagan) and Coordinating Editor of the Tomales Bay Times. She wrote a column in the Coastal Post for many years and was most recently a columnist for the Malibu Surfside News (2001-2005). She now lives in Point Reyes Station. She can be reached at [email protected]

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