Archive for July, 2013

During the 27 years I edited and published The Point Reyes Light, I belonged to a variety of newspaper associations, among them: the San Francisco Press Club; the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA); the National Newspaper Association (NNA); and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE).

Since retiring at the end of 2005, however, the only membership I’ve maintained is in ISWNE. The society’s purpose, to quote our website, “is to help those involved in the weekly press to improve standards of editorial writing and news reporting and to encourage strong, independent editorial voices.”

Moreover, the society really is international notwithstanding its being based in the American heartland at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. Three or four years ago, ISWNE listed the locations of its members’ newspapers, and I was surprised to see there were more in Alberta than California.

ISWNE’s annual conferences are often held abroad: Calgary, Alberta, 1994; London, Edinburgh, Cardiff & Dublin, 1995; Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1999; Victoria, British Columbia, 2000; Galway, Ireland, 2003; Edmonton & Fort McMurray, Alberta, 2005; Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, 2009; Coventry, England, 2011. In 2016, the group will head to Australia.

Postings from this blog are occasionally republished in the ISWNE newsletter.

Whether they’re in the US or abroad, most ISWNE members edit community weeklies. One of the more active members, who happens to be particularly savvy about community newspapers in the UK, is Jeremy Condliffe, who edits The Congleton Chronicle in Congleton, Cheshire, England. Perhaps these international editors merely have small-town common sense, but their comments in ISWNE’s publications and on its email hotline reflect a world of wisdom.

Why am I telling you all this? As a member of ISWNE, I receive its quarterly journal, Grassroots Editor, plus its monthly newsletter (above). I also read the bimonthly Columbia Journalism Review (below), which is published at Columbia University in New York City. The difference between New York’s and Joplin’s assessments of the state of newspapers is fascinating.


The July-August issue of CJR contains a review of The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age.

The author, Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, apparently imagines a day when nonprofit websites will replace many newspapers.

Post-Newspaper Age? The impression that newspapers in general are fading away has gained credence mostly from being so oft repeated.

It’s true that several well-known newspapers such as The Honolulu Advertiser and The Rocky Mountain News have folded in the last few years. Several big city dailies such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Detroit News, and the Detroit Free Press have cut back to three days a week. The Christian Science Monitor has had to drop its print edition and publish only online. We’ve all heard the story. It’s been discussed on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

In contrast, the spring issue of Grassroots Editor headlines a spot-check of far-flung weeklies, “Despite predictions of their pending demise, community newspapers are alive and well in: Montana, Bahamas, California, Ireland, Missouri, North Dakota, Atlantic Canada.”

In that issue, the editor of The Winters Express in Yolo County, Debra DeAngelo, commented on a conversation she’d had with CNPA’s director of affiliate relations, Joe Wirt.

“He explained that he’s visiting small Northern California newspapers to see what it’s really like in our world rather than assuming that we’re all in a rush to ditch print publication for online formats and iPhone apps.

“Apparently, the good folks at CNPA noticed that, wait a minute — not every small paper is dying a slow, choking death. Many are surviving, just as they are, despite years of economic stagnation and the explosion of online technology….

“People still want to read the city council stories on paper rather than watch them on cable, likely because waiting a week for the story is less painful than sitting through a meeting.”

Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, put it more bluntly: “Those people who say newspapers are dead or irrelevant or dinosaurs — they’re still reading newspapers.” Nor is optimism about the future of newspapers unique to supposedly old-fashioned editors at county weeklies.

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. holding company, is similarly optimistic about the future of bigger newspapers. And Buffett has amassed a personal fortune of $54 billion by knowing when a good business is undervalued.

In the past 19 months, Berkshire Hathaway has spent $344 million acquiring 28 daily newspapers. The company has stressed it doesn’t intend to “flip” (resell) any of these papers but instead plans to be their long-term owner.

In 2011, Buffett (left) was ranked the third richest man in the world. In 2008, he was the richest. He has repeatedly said the US under-taxes the rich and endorsed President Obama’s reelection.

It’s worth noting that Buffett does not interfere with his newspapers’ editorial policies. In a letter to shareholders, he wrote, “I voted for Obama; of our 12 dailies that endorsed a presidential candidate, 10 opted for Romney.”

Buffett also told shareholders why newspapers can survive regardless of widespread lamentations about their future:

“Newspapers continue to reign supreme,” he wrote, “in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.

“A reader’s eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end. Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents.”

Buffett doesn’t dispute the need for daily papers to include national and international news but makes explicit that what sells newspapers is good coverage of local news.

That’s just what the weekly press has been doing all along, informing readers about events in their own community. This, in turn, is why weekly newspapers aren’t about to die off.

As usual, Buffett knows what he’s talking about. The last I heard, there were fewer than 5,000 households in West Marin; nonetheless, two competing weeklies, The Point Reyes Light and The West Marin Citizen, are able to survive here thanks to their both providing intense coverage of local news.

About this time every year, they show up for more than a month at Mitchell cabin where they’re as welcome as a plague of locusts. A plague they are. Locusts they are not. In fact, I don’t have a precise name for them, but I presume they arrive from the fields around the cabin.

When none of my naturalist friends had a name for them, I asked a pest-control company three years ago what to call them. The firm responded that they are some kind of “field roach” but not to worry; they’re not at all like cockroaches. However, no one at the firm had a specific name for them.

While they don’t seem to cause any physical damage to the cabin or its contents, the field roaches are forever making unpleasant appearances.

Their fondness for soap attracts a stream of roaches to the bathroom and kitchen sinks. This fellow is in the bathroom sink. Worse yet, no sooner have I squished one and washed another down the drain than still more will appear. _____________________________________________________________

Captured field roaches in a drinking glass.

The yellow and orange stripes of field roaches cause them to vaguely resemble certain ladybugs.

So why am I so quick to squish them or wash them down the drain?

Let’s put it this way. Have you ever had bugs fall into your coffee so often you had to start putting the coaster on top of the mug instead of vice versa? (In just the time it’s taken to write this posting, I squished six of them on my desk and knocked two more off the lip of a can of cherry Coke from which I was sipping.)

You may be thinking: sure, it’s probably annoying for him to have to repeatedly squish bugs on his desk or, for that matter, on the table all through dinner. But in the greater scheme of things, what’s the big deal? ___________________________________________________________

As it happens, a smoke detector is mounted near the peak of Mitchell cabin’s cathedral ceiling roughly 18 feet above the top treads of the staircase to the loft. The device is hard-wired to the house current rather than battery powered, which is good. Changing the batteries would require periodically erecting scaffolding, for there’s no place to stand a ladder below the smoke detector.

Unfortunately, bugs are programmed to climb. Up the walls. Up the ceiling. And — in the case of field roaches — up into the smoke detector. Beeeeep! The alarm is ferocious and continues until the roach moves on, which usually is fairly quick — probably because the vibrations are intense. (That’s happened more than a dozen times while I’ve been writing this.)

On occasion, however, a field roach will crawl inside the smoke detector, set it off, and then stay put. (That’s happened four times tonight.) If the racket keeps up for several minutes, I have to take action. But what to do? I’ve used a vacuum cleaner tube to try sucking the suckers out of the smoke detector, but that didn’t do much except pull off the cover (see above).

More than once I’ve tried using a leaf blower, but that didn’t work very well either. Nor did creating a moat of bug spray on the ceiling around the smoke detector. The spray didn’t hold back the field roaches, and what’s worse, the mist set off the sensor. It took more than an hour for the air inside the smoke detector to clear, forcing me to flip a breaker switch. That stopped the racket but also turned off lights here and there around the cabin.

You see why I consider this annual swarm a plague, but a plague of what? If any of you out there know the precise name of this “field roach,” please post a comment. ______________________________________________________________ Meanwhile outdoors:

By chance at the very moment I snapped a photograph of a mother raccoon and her three kits on the deck Sunday evening, Lynn tossed half a slice of bread to one of the youngsters.

The kit probably later told its siblings: “When I looked up and saw some bread flying in my direction, I briefly wondered why it kept getting bigger and bigger. Then suddenly it struck me…”

Consider this a dining review for the benefit of wildlife in Point Reyes Station.

The Pine Cone Diner.

A Western gray squirrel carries a pine cone in its teeth as it jumps from limb to limb in a Monterey pine next to Mitchell cabin. West Marin’s squirrels are easy to spot but hard to photograph. In the time it takes to raise a camera to my eye, they often bound away to a new location.

Squirrels gnaw off the scales of pine cones while the cones are still green in order to eat the pine seeds underneath.

Sometime ago it became obvious from the small, well-gnawed pine cones we were finding on the walk and decks at Mitchell cabin that once again a squirrel is a habitué of one tree in particular. It’s fun to have the squirrel around, but having the remains of cones and seeds continually under foot is a nuisance.

Also found below pines at the cabin are limb tips a squirrel has gnawed off. Squirrels like to feed on pine trees’ cambium layer, which is immediately under the bark. The bark that’s softest and easiest to gnaw through is at the narrow ends of growing limbs, resulting in squirrels forever gnawing off the ends.

Were this the Yuletide, a few of the tips that fell in the past two weeks would have been big enough to serve as small Christmas trees. One was more than four feet long.

A ruby-throated hummingbird approaches a favorite flower on the deck. In normal flight, a hummingbird’s wings beat around 80 times per second, but in dives performed during courtship, they may reach 200 flaps per second.

The same hummingbird sucks nectar from a blossom.

Hummingbirds are able to hover in one place by flapping their wings in a horizontal figure 8.

A tri-colored blackbird swoops in for a landing, pushing aside other blackbirds, which are pecking birdseed off the deck railing. The tri-colored blackbird’s yellow patch on its wing distinguishes it from a red-winged blackbird.

The flash from the camera is reflected in the fox’s eyes, but the vixen appears oblivious to the burst of light. Photo by Lynn Axelrod

A gray fox heads toward the kitchen door at Mitchell cabin after dark, hoping to be handed a slice of bread. A couple of days later, Lynn saw the vixen jump onto a deck chair and then onto the railing where a mourning dove was sitting, but the bird took flight just in time to escape. 

Raccoons likewise fail to react to the camera’s flashes. They too are far more interested in bread. Photo by Lynn Axelrod

An earlier posting describing how animals’ eyes react to light notes, among other things, that wildlife including birds do not usually show any reaction to sporadic flashes — even those directly in their faces — but a quick succession of flashes gets their attention.

A black tailed buck shows the grace of a dancer as he looks up from grazing next to Mitchell cabin.

This deer seems to have marked off my fields as his, for no other bucks have been coming around recently although a fawn and a couple of does are frequent visitors.

If you happen to be a squirrel, hummingbird, blackbird, fox, raccoon, or deer, Mitchell cabin offers great food at no charge. But look out for the fox if you’re smaller than she is.

How a sewer district came to run a park is one of those idiosyncratic West Marin stories.

Tomales Community Services District was created in 1998 to take over the town’s sewer system from North Marin Water District. At the time, Tomales already had a park, which had opened in 1982. However, after state government inspected the park’s playground equipment and found it unsafe, the district with grants and volunteer labor by townspeople took on making ambitious improvements, including — appropriately — creating the town’s first public restrooms.

Development and maintenance of the park continue to be financed by a variety of grants and fundraisers, with one of the fundraisers held this past Sunday: the third annual Party in the Park.

Giving particular importance to the fundraiser was the Dean Witter Foundation of San Francisco, which had agreed to match dollar for dollar all the money raised up to $10,000.

Having fun selling Tomales Community Park wine glasses, as well as tickets for oysters and drinks.

Among the musical groups entertaining the crowd was the Gary Foster Trio from Sebastopol. Foster (center) also happens to be the organist for Tomales Presbyterian Church. He delighted the crowd by singing rhythm and blues such as What’d I Say, rock ‘n’ roll such as Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, and country music such as Route 66. But what dazzled many of us was his unexpectedly breaking out of this repertoire to sing a bit of grand opera, giving a masterful performance of La donna è mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Hoop dancing to most of the music (except Verdi’s) were young people led by Lilea Duran (center in red and black). Lilea teaches adult classes and performs throughout the Bay Area with her company Sunglow Hoop Dance. She also takes part in Vegetable Circus whose mission is to get kids excited about eating their vegetables and staying active in fun, creative ways. Working with schools, youth groups, and other community organizations, Vegetable Circus teaches the kids circus arts like hula hooping. Photo by Lynn Axelrod

Tomales Regional History Center raised funds by selling raffle tickets for a quilt. Alex Mitchell (center), president of the center’s board of directors, is seen here manning the ticket booth.

Sounding like he was auctioning livestock, Sam Dolcini with help from Deborah Parrish raised money by auctioning such prizes as two nights at Donna and Marc Clavauds’ Marinette Cottage in Tomales and a day at Dillon Beach for 20 people.

Among the prizes auctioned was this oil painting by Kathryn LeMieux of a cottage in the Tomales Bay hamlet of Hamlet. During the days of the North Pacific Coast narrow-gauge railway line (1875-1930), Hamlet was a whistlestop with its own post office, restaurant, oyster beds, and cannery. Notwithstanding the rail line’s closing, the homes, oyster beds, and restaurant remained in use.

Sadly, the historic village was acquired by the National Park Service in 1987, thus preventing any commercial or residential use of Hamlet’s buildings. Unoccupied, they were easy prey for burglars who stole furnishings. Hamlet had always been in the line of storms on the bay, and the Park Service made no effort to maintain the old buildings. Some collapsed, and in 2003, the Park Service took a bulldozer to those that remained.

Another prize Dolcini auctioned was this model of a Victorian home, which Barbara Taddei of Tomales created over four years working off and on. Liz Miller of Dillon Beach made the winning bid of $350. Photo by Lynn Axelrod

Tomales Volunteer Fire Department used the party as an occasion to recruit new members. The firefighters reminded me they will hold their own fundraiser, a “country breakfast” from 7:30 a.m. to noon Sunday, July 21, at Tomales Town Hall.

At a popular booth selling books, my partner Lynn found a book she’d always wanted to read, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. The author is perhaps best known for The Guns of August, a history of the beginning of World War I.

And what festival in West Marin would be complete without face painting? Youngsters chose designs that ranged from cats to ghosts to super heroes. For some kids, getting their face painted was a highlight of the jovial afternoon.

By my lights, Tomales with a population of only 200 has a disproportionate amount of fun. The community services district website observes, “Tomales is the town that West Marin forgot, and we like it that way. A few times a year the park comes alive with activity, but most of the time the pace is pleasantly slow, the dogs friendly, and good food close at hand.”

Lynn had repeatedly commented on the beautiful markings framing the face of one particular female raccoon that drops by Mitchell cabin each evening for a few slices of bread.

“Our Beautiful Raccoon,” a photograph from June 8 by Lynn Axelrod.

The same raccoon with three young kits on June 26.

We’d been wondering if Ms. Raccoon was feeding a family, and last week she confirmed our suspicions when she brought a set of young triplets along with her one evening. The kits for the most part stayed close to their mother.

Mom, as would be expected, was protective of them. Here she keeps an eye on another raccoon as it approaches the cabin.

As is often the case, one of the kits is bolder than the others. While its siblings (upper left) try to stay out of sight behind the woodbox, this one joins mom out on the deck hunting for scraps of bread.

If I accidentally drop a slice of bread before I can hand it to her, mom doesn’t hesitate to reach into the kitchen for it. That, of course, is hardly surprising. My late buddy Terry Gray, who had slept near his kitchen, told me more than once of waking up to find a raccoon, which had come in through the cat door, close to his bed hunting for food.

Besides being unsettling, the raccoons were nuisances, for Terry would have to get up and scare them back out the cat door.

All this inspired me to experiment. Would a fox do the same thing? Apparently it will at least pick a slice of bread off the kitchen floor near the door. But would it come in through a cat door if we had one? My guess is that it would be more hesitant than a raccoon to enter the cabin but might do so if it were convinced there was food inside and no human around. After all, foxes are famous for raiding hen houses.

If I’m right, it certainly would be unsettling to be awakened by some fox hunting close to my bed.

One difference in their personalities I have observed is that raccoons are content with dining restaurant style, eating their food where it’s served. Foxes prefer takeout dining. Unlike their human neighbors, they protect their privacy — which is yet another reason why you’ll never find a fox with phone or Internet service.