Wed 26 May 2010
A group of mostly West Marin residents calling themselves Marin Media Institute last Friday bought The Point Reyes Light from Robert I. Plotkin, who had owned it four and a half years.
Having owned The Light for 27 of its 62 years, I’ve been following the developments closely.
The paper plans to incorporate as a nonprofit with scientist Corey Goodman of Marshall as chairman of the board and journalist Mark Dowie of Inverness as vice chairman.
Tess Elliott will remain as editor, and ad director Renée Shannon has been promoted to business manager. Missy Patterson, 83, who has worked at The Light for 28 years, will continue as front-office manager.
From left: Missy Patterson shows off the new look of The Light, which once again has the Point Reyes Lighthouse in its front-page flag; editor Tess Elliott; and business manager Renée Shannon, who holds an issue with the flag Plotkin had used.
Eighty-six contributors ponied up $350,000 to: 1) buy The Light; 2) provide two years of working capital; 3) pay for a professional appraisal; and 4) cover the the legal costs of the sale, of incorporation, and of creating a nonprofit. Goodman said the price of The Light was confidential, but based on all this, I would guess it was in the $150,000 to $175,000 range.
In The Light’s Jan. 15, 2009, issue, Plotkin wrote that although he’d paid me $500,000 for the newspaper three years earlier, he’d been trying to sell it for $275,000 but had found no takers. It would be a “financial bloodbath,” Plotkin added, but “I was prepared to discount the price even more.” The Light at the time was “losing between $5,000 and $15,000 a month,” he 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 Elliott wrote this week, [The Light] 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.”
In an article for The Columbia Journalism Review two years ago, Jonathan Rowe of Point Reyes Station wrote: “First, there was the braggadocio and self-dramatization. Most people in his situation would lay low for a bit, speak with everyone and get a feel for the place. Instead, Plotkin came out talking.
“We read that he was going to be the ‘Che Guevara of literary revolutionary journalism.’ The Light would become The New Yorker of the West…. [However] he soon showed a gift for the irritating gesture and off-key note.”
I encountered Plotkin’s “snarkiness” (Rowe’s word) almost as soon as I sold him the paper. When I tried to background him on a land-use planning issue in February 2006, he became abusive, and we had a falling out.
Plotkin (at right) then began publishing such malicious attacks on me that columnist Jon Carroll felt moved to complain in The San Francisco Chronicle about Plotkin’s “sleazy” editing.
I had been volunteering an occasional column after the sale, but I naturally stopped when Plotkin began maligning me. Joel Hack, who owns The Bodega Bay Navigator website in Sonoma County, then invited me to submit stories, and I did.
When I sold The Light to Plotkin, I had agreed not to write for another Marin County newspaper as long as he owned all the stock in The Light. Upset that my writings were now online, Plotkin then claimed in court that a Sonoma County website is no different from a Marin County newspaper. Now-retired Judge Jack Sutro, who appeared not to understand the Internet, agreed and issued injunctions against Hack and me.
But it was a disastrous victory for Plotkin. Hack would eventually respond by launching the competing West Marin Citizen, which cut significantly into The Light’s revenues. The Citizen quickly grew in circulation while The Light’s circulation was plummeting, with many of its readers switching papers. The Citizen likewise picked up a number of Light advertisers who were unhappy with Plotkin’s editorial “sensibility.”
In getting a court to bar my writing for Hack’s website, Plotkin — to paraphrase the Book of Hosea — sewed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.
As for Plotkin, how does he explain his publishing debacle? “Sadly, West Marin did not want editorial excellence,” he told The Chronicle this week. “They wanted a newspaper that would record their births, celebrate their accomplishments, and habitually congratulate them on living here.”
Last weekend, the new owners notified the press of Friday’s sale but embargoed their news release until this Thursday. Nonetheless, the moment the sale occurred, word of it spread throughout West Marin. Jeanette Pontacq of Point Reyes Station told me she returned home Friday after a month in Paris and in less than 24 hours had been filled in on most details.
Technically, The Light is now owned by The Point Reyes Light Publishing Company L3C (a low-profit limited liability company). It is incorporated in Vermont, which is common for L3Cs. That company is, in turn, owned by Marin Media Institute, which is applying for nonprofit status.
Mark Dowie (left) and Corey Goodman with the sign that once hung over The Light’s front door.
Along with Goodman and Dowie, directors of Marin Media are David Escobar of Contra Costa County, aide to Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, also active in Democratic, Latino and Native American politics; Chris Dressler of Marshall, former coastal commissioner and co-founder of Women’s Voices, Women Vote; Phyllis Faber of Mill Valley, former coastal commissioner and co-founder of Marin Agricultural Land Trust; Jerry Mander of Bolinas, author, former ad agency president, and founder of an anti-globalization think tank; David Miller of Inverness Park, international-development specialist; Scoop Nisker of Oakland, Spirit Rock Meditation Center teacher and former KSAN newsman; Norman Solomon of Inverness Park, journalist and political activist.
There are too many contributors to list here. Contributions ranged “from a few dollars to $50,000,” Goodman said.
The question currently on many people’s minds is what will happen to The Citizen now that The Light is being revitalized. I had hoped to see the two papers merge, but a merged operation became difficult when the new owners of The Light decided to create a nonprofit.
However, both Hack and Goodman told me this week that the option of combining the two papers “is still on the table” although nothing is likely to happen right away.
Hack (above), who is justifiably proud of what The Citizen has accomplished in a little less than three years, isn’t interested in simply selling out and walking away. His paper’s hyper-local coverage of public gatherings and West Marin commerce, along with its publishing of innumerable submissions from readers, has been popular with many residents and merchants.
The Light, in turn, has made its mark with investigative reporting ever since Elliott took full charge of its newsroom.
For the past month, some people have been saying The Citizen is about to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and go out of business, but Hack insists there is no truth to the rumor. The only money he and his wife Kathy Simmons owe is about $25,000 in state and federal income taxes, Hack said. They have filed for Chapter 13 protection, which will allow them to pay off this relatively small amount over three years without incurring additional penalties for late payments.
That’s all that’s going on, and it in no way threatens The Citizen. In fact, the state and federal governments benefit from The Citizen’s staying in business because it gives Hack a source of income to pay the back taxes.
I have friends at both papers, and I hope both have profitable futures. Most of Marin Media’s directors are known to me, and I respect them. I also have a high regard for the contributors. I’m delighted they are reinvigorating my old newspaper and wish them well.
I also hope the community continues to support The Citizen. The changes at The Light have obviously changed the dynamics between the two papers, and I would be surprised if each didn’t find its own niche — which will probably require some adapting.
The Light and The Citizen have each invited me to periodically submit columns and articles, and I’ve agreed to write for both. It’s been a long winter, but springtime has finally arrived.