Sun 18 Jul 2010
The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday published the latest in a series of out-of-town-media reports on the dispute between The Point Reyes Light and The West Marin Citizen. The report ran under the headline: “Newspaper War Rages in West Marin.”
With many West Marin residents wishing the “war” would end, more than 300 people as of Monday evening had signed a petition calling for both sides to get together and work out their differences.
The dispute went public a month ago when Citizen owner Joel Hack published an “Extra” edition accusing Marin Media Institute, the nonprofit that had just bought The Light, of attempting a “hostile takeover.” The edition said that MMI was trying to take advantage of Joel’s personal financial problems to gain control of The Citizen.
Joel is married to Kathie Simmons, an attorney in Sonoma County. Kathie, who does business as a one-attorney law firm, had to dip into her IRA several times in recent years to cover business expenses.
The problem, Joel told me, was that because she was under 59 and 1/2, she had to pay penalties for the early withdrawals. Without the funds to pay the penalties and failing to file some tax returns in a timely manner, the couple saw their initial debt of $4,000 to $5,000 to the IRS and the State Franchise Tax Board balloon to $26,000.
On Feb. 26, Joel and Kathie filed for Chapter 13 protection (from creditors) under US Bankruptcy laws. They then began paying off their back state and federal income taxes at the rate of $600 a month. Under Chapter 13, they could do this over 36 months without incurring additional penalties.
However, MMI’s attorney Doug Ferguson then notified the bankruptcy trustee that the nonprofit had negotiated unsuccessfully to buy The Citizen and would still be willing to buy the paper if the trustee liked the idea.
Citing attorney Ferguson’s letter, the bankruptcy trustee last month recommended the bankruptcy court convert Joel’s and Kathie’s Chapter 13 (individual bankruptcy) to Chapter 7 (possible liquidation) or Chapter 11 (reorganization).
MMI now says it later told the trustee — when he asked — that the nonprofit was no longer interested in buying The Citizen. But the damage had been done. Faced with either Chapter 7 or Chapter 11, Joel and Kathie have now voluntarily dismissed their bankruptcy protection, and Joel told me he will dip into his own IRA to pay off their debts.
[Corey Goodman, chairman of MMI, on Aug. 3 offered a “mea culpa” for letting attorney Ferguson send out a letter that indicated MMI was ready to buy The Citizen. Corey said he should have “proofread” Ferguson’s letter but did not. In reality, Corey added, MMI by then was no longer interested in buying The Citizen.]
[I’m willing to take Corey at his word on this, for he confirms what I’ve said from the start. In a June 23 posting about the newspaper war I wrote, “Whom do I blame? Attorney Ferguson, who seems to have been too clever by half…. Ferguson was clearly looking for the bankruptcy court’s help in getting Joel to accept MMI’s (previous) $50,000 offer for The Citizen.”]
The Wall Street Journal meanwhile quoted me as saying the dispute between the papers “is extremely bitter. We’re reaching the point where an awful lot of people would like everybody to just quiet down the fighting.”
Among those people is Nancy Bertelsen, who has long been active in West Marin civic affairs, especially those involving the arts. On Friday she emailed me a petition that was also sponsored by six other people who are likewise prominent around Point Reyes Station: Steve Costa, Chris Giacomini, Michael Mery, Claire Peaslee, Jonathan Rowe, and Murray Suid.
“Prompted by the difficulties between our two weekly newspapers, those of us listed [above] met to discuss how we could encourage the owners of the papers to unite in some way for the good of the community,” the cover letter said.
“We’re writing to ask if you [the public] will support this effort by adding your name in support of the statement below. The intention is to bring the owners to the table to work out a solution that is acceptable to all. Use the following blog website to respond if you agree with the statement intent: http://www.westmarinblog.org/
“We hope you will be joined by many other friends, readers and advertisers. The proposal along with all our names and the list of advertisers will be submitted to both papers, with a request that they publish the full list. If you support the initiative and would like to have your name appear with ours, consider signing by Tuesday, July 20th (we hope this will be published on July 22nd).”
The petition to both publishers reads as follows:
“There is broad interest in West Marin in the emergence of a single newspaper that serves us all. The current competition between two weekly papers is not working. It forces both to struggle—journalistically and financially — and it strains the loyalties and resources of advertisers, readers and contributors alike. We urge that you end this situation, which is depriving the community of the strong, stable paper we need.
“Both papers exist to serve the community. The owners of both are clearly committed to that purpose. But the current situation is working against what both papers want to achieve, and against the best interests of West Marin. Readers and advertisers are weary and do not want this fractured situation to continue. We want a unified community.
“Specifically, we urge the owners of both papers and their representatives to begin an open discussion to work out a more positive relationship than is the case now. Using the services of a mediator would probably be helpful. A new relationship might include a merger of the two papers or any number of agreements that have not been imagined before now but that would be mutually beneficial.
“In any case, negotiations should be without conditions or preconceptions, and with neither recriminations nor need for apologies on either side. Instead, we call upon you to start fresh and seek a way forward, to restore the vitality and viability of West Marin’s local media.
“We know that resolving this will not be easy. But we feel that the task is important—and a responsibility of our local journalism establishment. We all look forward to supporting you and to helping in any way that we can. Something great can take the place of the current tensions: something can emerge that the whole community can support.”
The petition caught me by surprise, but I’ve signed it, and I urge other West Marin residents to do the same so we can quiet down the fighting. It’s easy. Just click on http://www.westmarinblog.org/ and type in your name and hometown. The web page includes a list of people who have already signed.
Update: On July 22, The West Marin Citizen printed the cover letter, the petition, the names of its sponsors, and the names of the more than 300 people who signed it. The Point Reyes Light the same day published the cover letter and names of the sponsors but neither the petition nor the 300 signatures.