Thu 21 Feb 2008
It is easy to underestimate the power of coincidence; nonetheless, I am surprised by a sudden rekindling of interest in The Point Reyes Light and West Marin Citizen as representing two poles of community journalism.
A German journalist, Stephan Russ-Mohl, showed up at my cabin yesterday to interview me about the changes at The Light since I sold it two years ago. In 1992 while teaching Journalism at the Free University of Berlin, Russ-Mohl authored Zeitungsumbruch: Wie sich Amerikas Press revolutioniert, which devoted a chapter to The Light. Unfortunately, I can’t read it.
All I can tell you is that is that the chapter begins with a (presumably translated) comment by American journalist Robert Giles: “Die amerikanische Provinzpresse steht heute nicht mehr in der Tradition eins couragierten Journalismus, eines Journalismus, der Anstoß nimmt.”
Apparently the passage complains about “die amerikanische Provinzpresse” losing the courage to become indignant.
However, Russ-Mohl goes on to say, “Ein Beispiel jedenfalls, daß es mutigen Journalismus auch an den Grass roots noch gibt, liefert ein Winzling unter den amerikanischen Zeitungen, der ein Strückweit nördlich von San Francisco erscheint: The Point Reyes Light.” I surmise that 15 years ago the author could see some counter-examples, including The Light, but as they say in Germany, “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.” *
Another book that devotes a chapter to The Light is Pulitzer’s Gold, which has just been published by the University of Missouri Press and is selling remarkably well.
Engagingly written by Roy Harris (senior editor at CFO magazine), Pulitzer’s Gold looks in detail at what the 12 most-recent winners did to earn the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, which Joseph Pulitzer considered his top prize.
The book also details the work of several other of the 92 winners (through 2006) of the Public Service gold medal, including The Light. These others were chosen, Harris writes, “because they are not only terrific stories but also fine illustrations of how Pulitzer Prize-winning work has evolved over the years.”
The Light won its gold medal in 1979 for an exposé of violence and other wrongdoing by the Synanon cult.
Pulitzer’s Gold notes that Robert Plotkin now owns The Light and concludes its chapter on the newspaper: “Though new to Marin, he has grand ideas. ‘This is going to be the Paris of the twenties. This is going to be the Beats of San Francisco in the fifties.’ Talent will gravitate to The Light, he says, because it is still known, even back East, as the little California paper that won the Pulitzer Prize.
“Mitchell, though, will never forget how strange it felt to have been so small and to have won so big: ‘It’s like being out playing touch football and making a good catch, and somebody says, “You could play for the 49ers with a catch like that.”’”
Meanwhile Point Reyes Station journalist Jonathan Rowe’s article, The Language of Strangers, in the January-February Columbia Journalism Review continues to generate discussion. The article describes the new incarnation of The Point Reyes Light and the advent of The West Marin Citizen.
In discussing The Light’s editorial approach under its new publisher, Rowe (at right) 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.”
A flap erupted when Peter Byrne, a columnist for an alternative newspaper, The North Bay Bohemian, posted an angry comment on CJR’s website where Rowe’s magazine story was online.
Byrne, who called Rowe’s article “terribly one-sided and unfair,” referred CJR readers to a column he himself had written. In the Bohemian column, Byrne wrote, “It seems evident to me that Plotkin breathes journalism day and night, and has responded to the expressed desires of his provincial readers,” adding that “The Light under the direction of Mitchell … was staler than day-old toast.”
Explaining his interest in The Light, Byrne acknowledged that “last year, Plotkin and I talked about working together, but it did not pan out since I require a living wage.”
Several CJR readers, including Rowe himself, have by now posted responses. “Byrne acknowledges that Plotkin is ‘narcissistic,’ which is his word not mine,” Rowe wrote. “But he blames this trait on us dim-witted locals, who lack a capacity to appreciate good journalism. ‘Townies waving pitchforks and whale-oil lanterns,’ he calls us. Now that’s reporting. It’s an interesting psychological theory too.”
A CJR reader named Monica Lee replied to Byrne: “Petah, Petah, Petah — sit yourself down, read much, study hard, and maybe someday you will write a piece as brilliantly spot-on about small-town newspapers and what they mean to a community as Jonathan Rowe has done.”
Another reader, Steve Bjerklie of Point Reyes Station, responded that publisher Plotkin is “a wealthy dilettante with a journalism degree playing out a Walter Mitty fantasy at The Light, and the West Marin community suffered for it until the advent of the rival Citizen.”
Michael Mery of Point Reyes Station wrote that Byrne’s comment was “a typical journalistic cheapshot — little information coupled with limited experience.”
I subsequently saw Mery in Toby’s Feed Barn and remarked on his response to Byrne’s commentary.
“It was drive-by journalism,” Mery said with a laugh. Although Mery came up with the clever turn-of-phrase on his own, he’s not the first to use it in describing a smear written by an out-of-town journalist who shows up only briefly. In fact, there is a book with that title by an author named Rowse (not to be confused with Rowe).
The Point Reyes Light controversy shows no sign of letting up any time soon, which no doubt explains why Sausalito-based Marin Magazine has now arranged to publish a lengthy excerpt from Rowe’s article.
* German slang that translated literally means: “All I understand is train station,” which is comparable to saying, “It’s Greek to me.” How do I know this and not know German? A little Vögelchen told me.