ivan_1_1.jpgFew Point Reyes Light reporters have received as many awards as Ivan Gale (upper left) of Chileno Valley, winning five state and national journalism awards in 2004 alone. The Light’s new owner, Robert Plotkin, on May 3 announced he will no longer display the awards won over the years by Gale and other Light staff. Gale left The Light to earn two master’s degrees from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He is now a business writer for the Gulf News in Dubai, the rapidly growing financial and tourist center in the United Arab Emirates. Here he attends a press conference where Shaikh Ahmed bin Saeed al Maktoum, the uncle of the ruler of Dubai, talks about Emirates airline’s annual results.

When I sold The Point Reyes Light to Robert Israel Plotkin in November 2005, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jesse Hamlin asked me how I felt about leaving the paper in new hands.

“One thing that gives me confidence,” I replied, “is that the citizens of West Marin know what they want in a newspaper. And if you’re not giving it to ‘em, they’ll let you know.”

100_0459.jpg Eighteen months have now past, and West Marin residents have repeatedly let Plotkin (at right) know he is not providing the community newspaper they need and expect. How much longer The Light can survive in its present form is now a topic of much speculation around the community.

Nor is The Light the newspaper it appears to be. Some merchants have been mistakenly billed for ads that had been canceled, and Plotkin’s former printer Scot Caldwell has told others and me that a number of merchants are refusing to pay for these and other ads. Innumerable people have stopped subscribing to The Light — some as long ago as last year, but they have kept receiving the paper each week, Caldwell added. I have heard the same thing from dozens of readers who stopped subscribing to The Light months ago but continue to get it free in the mail.

Meanwhile, with financial help from his landlord, Plotkin is in the midst of refurbishing his office while also publishing dozens of vapid, but relatively expensive, color photos and not paying off creditors to whom he owes significant amounts of money.
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When Plotkin’s debt to Caldwell’s Marin Sun Printing reached $11,000, the printer told me, Plotkin changed printers. Plotkin has now paid off $4,000 of that debt, but the damage has been done, and Caldwell will soon be part owner of a new weekly newspaper based in Point Reyes Station. More about that in a moment.

• Last year, Plotkin’s inaccurate reporting so offended the Stinson Beach Volunteer Fire Department that Chief Kenny Stephens had t-shirts and bumper stickers printed that say: “Put out The Light until he gets it right.”

100_1667.jpg• Three weeks ago former Light publisher Michael Gahagan, who sold the paper to me in 1975, described one of Plotkin’s self-promotions as “meglomaniacal,” adding: “It saddens me that [Plotkin has] so mistakenly misunderstood, dishonored, and continue[s] to defile a community legacy.”

Part of the legacy that Plotkin has taken off The Light’s walls are state and national honors won by Victoria Schlesinger (at left), who like Gale left The Light to earn two master’s degrees in Journalism from Columbia University. The May issue of Harper’s magazine published a whopping nine-page exposé by Schlesinger of the so-called Millenium Villages Project that is supposed to lead the Third World out of poverty. Ironically, Columbia’s Journalism Department paid her way to Kenya to investigate a pilot project run by the director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, Jeffrey Sachs. The former Light reporter revealed Sach’s project is a poorly administered fiasco which is trying to replicate a failed experiment from a quarter century ago.

Meanwhile, journalist Elizabeth Whitney of Inverness, who last December organized a community meeting to discuss The Light’s inadequate coverage of local news, is now organizing a public protest. “I think it is time to TAKE BACK THE LIGHT,” Whitney wrote in an announcement she began circulating last week.

“I am now initiating a focused protest on Monday, June 11, as TAKE BACK THE LIGHT DAY. If you have strong opinions about the Point Reyes Light, take your paper back to the editor at the office in Point Reyes Station and communicate verbally or in writing why you feel as you do. You can also mail your paper back with your comments to Box 210, Point Reyes Station 94956, if you find this easier.”

• On Monday of this week, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll wrote that the redesigned Light, which is heavy on color and light on local news, “looks like an alumni bulletin… The writing is terrible, but Plotkin is apparently not a words guy. Plotkin is a Plotkin guy.”

Plotkin’s malicious coverage of a deputy’s taking me into custody a year ago and having the county psych ward check to see if I was suicidal was “sleazy,” Carroll wrote in Monday’s Chronicle.

(In fact, as soon as county staff talked to me, they determined I was not suicidal, had no signs of emerging psychological problems, and should be immediately sent home in a taxi, which I was at county expense.)

Light reporter Micah Maidenberg, who wrote the story under Plotkin’s direction, knew all this from the public record, for I had emailed him copies. Maidenberg also knew the deputy went to my house after Plotkin made a bogus claim that I was suicidal. In addition, Maidenberg interviewed me, and I gave him straightforward answers.

However, neither the facts contained in the public record, nor my answers to his questions, nor his boss’ involvement were included in Maidenberg’s story, which instead lumped me in with a violent man from Bolinas who was taken to the psych ward and attacked a doctor.

• Maidenberg, by the way, is the same reporter who in March wrote the story identifying various Latino residents of West Marin as documented or undocumented immigrants.

Community leaders including Sacred Heart Church’s Father Jack O’Neill, Toby’s Feed Barn owner Chris Giacomini and his manager Oscar Gamez, Marin Community Foundation director Carlos Porrata and his wife Rebecca, Point Reyes Books owner Steve Costa, Cabaline Saddlery owner Vicki Leeds, 13 prominent Latinos, and a number of other well-known townspeople have publicly questioned Plotkin’s “journalistic ethics” in publishing Maidenberg’s story.

Not surprisingly, Maidenberg has given notice he’s leaving as of the end of this week. Maidenberg’s departure, however, is the least of The Light’s problems.

• Don Deane, publisher of The Coastal Post in Bolinas, has brought in Jeanette Pontacq of Point Reyes Station as editor. Under her, The Coastal Post has introduced color photos, is covering more West Marin news, and is picking up more advertisers.

On Wednesday, Deane told me he and Pontacq are also discussing publishing twice as often, fortnightly instead of monthly. However, he noted, no final decision has been made.

• One decision that is final was made by Joel Hack, owner of The Bodega Bay Navigator website, and Caldwell of Marin Sun Printing. They are about to start a new weekly newspaper in West Marin.

Debuting Friday, June 1, will be The West Marin Pilot. At least that is its tentative name. The public will be asked to submit suggestions for the final name. Hack said the first issue will be an eight-page introductory copy. Each week from July 1 on, it will be published full size and sell for $1 a copy.

dscn2329_1.jpgFormer Light editor Jim Kravets of Fairfax (left) will edit the weekly. Former Light advertising representative Sandy Duveen of Woodacre will sell advertisng.

Caldwell told me Kravets and Duveen will both share in the ownership. Like Caldwell, both of them have had a hard time collecting thousands of dollars Plotkin owes them.

As for The Navigator’s Hack, Plotkin is suing him and me for Hack’s letting me post items on his Sonoma County website. Plotkin has claimed that the postings violated The Light’s sales agreement in which I agreed not to work for another Marin County newspaper.

In a ruling that defies common sense — and presumably the law — Marin Superior Court Judge Jack Sutro last fall ruled a Sonoma County website is the same as a Marin County newspaper and ordered me to stop posting on it. That ruling is now before an appeals court.

img_3174_1.jpgAlso planning to work for The Pilot are: Missy Patterson of Point Reyes Station, who for 25 years has handled the front desk at The Light; former Light historian Dewey Livingston of Inverness, who used to contribute West Marin’s Past; feature writer Ellen Shehadeh of Inverness, who had been a frequent contributor to The Light; obituary writer Larken Bradley of San Rafael, who had won a variety of state and national journalism awards while at The Light; and Charlie Morgan of Inverness Park, who covers sports events for KWMR, will be the sports writer.

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Caldwell told me The Pilot is still deciding where to have its office and might even move into the Creamery Building, where The Light is also located. As Duveen (right) remarked with a laugh: “That would be a hoot.”