Mon 17 Oct 2011
The editor and publisher of The West Marin Citizen, Joel Hack, will retire after this week’s issue, which will be published Thursday, Oct. 20. Advertising director Linda Petersen of Inverness will take over ownership of the weekly newspaper.
Joel Hack at Drakes Bay Oyster Company
“I’m leaving because I’ve been doing this for 17 years,” Hack, 67, told me Sunday, “and it’s time to stop.” Publishing a small-town weekly, he added, “is constant — 24/7 and 52 weeks a year. I’ve had five weeks off in 17 years. It was approaching burnout.”
Before Hack started The Citizen, he had been the editor and publisher of The Bodega Bay Navigator for 12 years. But after unsuccessful negotiations with Robert Plotkin of The Point Reyes Light and after losing several major advertisers in a real estate market down turn, Hack in August 2006 dropped the print version and began publishing exclusively online.
So why did he start The Citizen in West Marin? In November 2005, Plotkin, a new resident in Bolinas, bought The Point Reyes Light from me. At the same time, he offered to buy The Navigator from Hack, but when they couldn’t strike a deal, “he decided he would just take Bodega Bay over,” Hack said.
As the new owner of The Light, Plotkin (right) told The San Francisco Chronicle he wanted to create a paper with the “sophistication of The Economist” and the “flair” of The New York Observer newspaper. (Chronicle photo by Eric Luse)
Instead of providing highbrow reporting, however, Plotkin quickly offended many West Marin readers with coverage that was often lurid — a full-color, front-page photo of two chickens, whose throats had just been slit, hanging upside down with blood pouring from their necks, a girl chomping into the severed head of a goat during festivities on Mount Tamalpais etc.
When The Light started covering Bodega Bay news, “it was one more thorn in the side of West Marin readers,” Hack said. “We have nothing to do with Bodega Bay,” was their response. “Why should we be reading about it?”
Nor did The Light go over well in Bodega Bay. Plotkin sent three reporters to cover stories there, Hack said, but the venture “lasted only about a month.” With Plotkin unfamiliar with Western Sonoma County, Hack explained, “the coverage was a little off.” Plotkin ran into the same problem when he tried to extend The Light’s coverage to Fairfax in East Marin, Hack added.
Reporter Lynn Axelrod of Point Reyes Station inspects last week’s issue. Her reporting and editing are expanding under The Citizen’s new structure.
Meanwhile, Plotkin and I soon had a falling out, and I stopped submitting occasional pieces, for which I was not charging, to The Light and sent them to The Navigator website instead. In selling The Light to Plotkin, I had signed a non-competition agreement that I would not write for another Marin County newspaper, but attorney Robert Powsner on Plotkin’s behalf got Judge Jack Sutro to issue a bizarre injunction against Hack and me that barred my posting on Hack’s website.
Powsner told Sutro that my posting on the website was “damaging or destroying” The Light, and the judge accepted the claim. In chambers, Sutro told lawyers for both sides that protecting Plotkin’s $500,000 investment in The Light outweighed constitutional prohibitions against censoring free expression.
Moreover, the now-retired jurist didn’t seem to understand the Internet and ruled that a Sonoma County website is the same as a Marin County newspaper.
Linda Petersen had been my houseguest when Hack began looking for an advertising representative. She took the job and played a major role in getting the newspaper off the ground financially. Her role at the paper eventually expanded to include business and reporting. What will her title be as owner? Hack has suggested “la jefa” [the chief], she responded.
Hack was already feeling “a little thing of anger” toward Plotkin for trying to go into competition with him after he revealed The Navigator’s finances during business negotiations. Then came the injunction. Added to that, “readers in West Marin were pissed off,” Hack said, so in July 2007, he started his own weekly newspaper in Point Reyes Station. The results were gratifying.
“People popped in and wanted to work on The Citizen,” Hack said. “Outside contributors and staff had a sense of what a community newspaper should be. In the first year, we did very well. We had lots of advertisers and lots of readers — really good readers.
“But within the first six months, the stock market crashed, and the whole economic system collapsed. The recession dug its heels in. Where we had been flying high, things had gotten very much more difficult, and they haven’t improved… Real estate dried up, and in total, Realtors [had been] the largest advertisers.”
Nonetheless, The Citizen “had a winning formula,” Hack said, “because we were also publishing The Marin Coast Guide, and that saw us through.” These days “we struggle,” he noted, “but at times we break even.”
In contrast to Plotkin, who often was viewed as an outsider in West Marin, Hack did his best to take part in the community. Here the mustachioed publisher served a guest at the 2008 community Thanksgiving Dinner in the Dance Palace.
With a second newspaper in town, The Light was “losing between $5,000 and $15,000 a month,” Plotkin himself reported. Across the country newspapers were losing money, Plotkin wrote, so “this is not unique to The Light, although there have been some aggravating factors, namely myself…. My sensibility is at odds with many in the community.”
Of that there was no doubt. “During the first couple of years under the last publisher,” editor Tess Elliott wrote after Plotkin sold The Light in May 2010, “it lost one third of its subscribers; the effects of those years continue to reverberate. Our reporters still regularly hear complaints and flat out refusals to talk.”
As for Plotkin, he had acknowledged he would take a “financial bloodbath” when he sold the paper. He reportedly received about $150,000 for The Light after paying $500,000 for the newspaper and periodically subsidizing it.
What’s next for the two newspapers? Could the 63-year-old Point Reyes Light and the four-year-old West Marin Citizen ever join together as one? Nothing is in the works, which is too bad, for it means two small-town weeklies will continue to split West Marin’s readership and advertising.
Both papers have had to take dramatic cost-cutting measures. The Light can no longer field as many reporters as it once did, and both papers have had to relocate to cheaper quarters. In the last year, The Light moved out of Point Reyes Station and now operates from a small office behind the Inverness Post Office. The Citizen, which had been renting the old Point Reyes Station Library next to the Pine Cone Diner, moved into filmmaker John Korty’s former studio on B Street.
The Light is now owned by Marin Media Institute, and friends of The Citizen have begun looking for investors from the community to become part owners, along with Petersen.
As for Hack, what will he now do? “I don’t know,” he replied, “but I’m sure I’ll come up with something.”