The Point Reyes Light

The Point Reyes Light

Infobox Newspaper
name = Point Reyes Light

caption = "logo used in the 2008 online edition"
type = Weekly newspaper
format = Tabloid
foundation = 1948
(as "The Baywood Press")
ceased publication =
price = $1.00
owners = Tomales Bay Publishing Company
publisher = Robert & Lys Plotkin
editor = Robert Plotkin
language = English
circulation = "c." 4000 (in 2006)
headquarters = Point Reyes Station, CA94956
United States
website = []

The "Point Reyes Light" is a weekly newspaper published since 1948 in western Marin County, California. The "Light" gained national attention in 1979 due to its reporting on a cult, Synanon, and the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the paper for this coverage. Recently, the paper has itself been the subject of local controversy and national coverage, based on changes in both style and content and disputes between the current publishers and their predecessor.

The "Light" covers regional issues in and near West Marin, including the communities of Point Reyes Station, Inverness, Olema, Bolinas, Inverness Park, Nicasio, Stinson Beach, the San Geronimo Valley, Tomales, and the nearby Point Reyes National Seashore, as well as Fairfax and Bodega Bay. Other media outlets serving this region include the community FM radio station KWMR and the "West Marin Citizen", a competing weekly newspaper, both located within a block of the "Light"'s editorial offices in Point Reyes Station.


The paper was originally known as the "Baywood Press", and published for less than a year in Inverness before moving to Point Reyes Station. Its coverage area, which consisted of 14 small towns spread over 400 square miles, is known as West Marin. It was renamed the "Point Reyes Light" by publishers Don and Clara Mae DeWolfe in 1966 after the Point Reyes Lighthouse. For many years, the logo in the newspaper's banner and masthead used an image of the lens and upper structure of the Lighthouse. A similar logo is still used in the online edition.

Dave and Wilma Rogers on March 1, 1948, founded the paper as The Baywood Press, a name it retained for its first 18 years. At first, the paper was published in neighboring Inverness but moved to Point Reyes Station (present pop. 750) within a year.

In 1951, Al and Madonna Bartlett, both experienced newspeople, bought the newspaper. Although they were one of the paper’s few owners to ever make a profit, they sold it in 1956 to George and Nancy Sherman. In 1958, the Shermans sold The Baywood Press to Don and Clara Mae DeWolfe, who on Sept. 8, 1966, renamed it The Point Reyes Light. Don DeWolfe later explained that he grew tired of out-of-town advertisers asking, “Where the hell is Baywood?”

DeWolfe owned the newspaper 13 years, counting on a commercial print shop to help keep the business profitable. In 1970, however, the DeWolfes sold The Point Reyes Light to Michael and Annabelle Gahagan.

The Light in those days was still printed in-house on a 1910 flatbed, web Goss press. Production was laborious and expensive, and after six years of financial frustration, the Gahagans sold the newspaper to David and Cathy Mitchell, who had both previously worked for other newspapers.

With their first issue in August 1975, the Mitchells converted The Light from hot-type to offset reproduction, farmed out the printing, and sold the old Goss press for $1. By using modern production techniques and a central printing plant, The Light eventually was able to make a small profit.

When the Mitchells divorced in 1981, they sold The Light to Rosalie Laird and her short-term partner Ace Ramos. Laird owned The Light from Oct. 1, 1981, to Dec. 31, 1983, when David Mitchell reacquired it through a default action.

The Mitchells and the Pulitzer Prize

Dave and Cathy Mitchell bought the "Light" in 1975 for $47,000, when its circulation was 1,700. [ [ California Newspaper Publishers Association, profile of David V. Mitchell, originally published in the September-October 2002 issue of "California Publisher"] , accessed June 5, 2008] Dave Mitchell became the editor and they were co-publishers.

In 1979 under the Mitchells, the "Light" earned the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for reporting on a cult, Synanon, which had a major presence in the area and had attempted to murder an attorney who won a lawsuit against the cult. The "San Francisco Examiner" dropped their coverage of Synanon after libel threats.

The Light won the Meritorious Public Service gold medal for an exposé of Synanon Incorporated, a onetime drug-rehabilitation program that changed its name to the Church of Synanon and evolved into a violent cult. Mitchell began reporting on Synanon, which was headquartered in the nearby town of Marshall, in early 1978 as violent incidents involving its followers began coming to his newspaper’s attention. At the height of its violence, Synanon members on Oct. 10, 1978, tried to kill Los Angeles attorney [ Paul Morantz] by planting a rattlesnake in his mailbox. Morantz survived being bitten, and in an Oct. 19, 1978, article, Mitchell revealed that Synanon founder [ Charles Dederich] had been calling for an attack on Morantz, who three weeks earlier had won a $300,000 judgment against the cult. Dederich and followers Lance Kenton and Joe Musico were later arrested and in July 1980 pled no contest to charges of conspiracy to commit murder.

Working with his wife and University of California at Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe (an unpaid consultant for the Synanon investigation), Mitchell subsequently wrote The Light on Synanon: How a Country Weekly Exposed a Corporate Cult and Won the Pulitzer Prize. The book was published in 1980 by Seaview Books, then a wholly owned division of Playboy, and was made into a two-hour movie for CBS, Attack on Fear.

Lawyers for Synanon responded to the exposé by filing [ six libel suits] against the Mitchells. The Mitchells received a pro bono defense from Heller Ehrman White and McAuliffe, which in representing them won a significant victory for the state’s press. In its 1984 decision [ Mitchell v. (Marin) Superior Court,] the California Supreme Court ruled that reporters could often keep confidential sources secret in libel and other civil cases without forfeiting their defense. The cult settled the litigation it had instigated by paying the Mitchells $100,000, and Mitchell published a photo of the check on The Light’s front page.

The Mitchells sold the "Light" to Ace Ramos and Rosalee Laird in 1981. Dave Mitchell returned as editor and publisher in 1984 after working for the "San Francisco Examiner" as a general assignment reporter and covering the wars in El Salvador and Guatamala.

The Light's Accomplishments

Despite its small size, the paper began sending reporters and photographers on overseas assignments to report on five waves of historic immigration to West Marin. In 1988 and 1991, The Light sent reporters to Jalostotitlán in southern Mexico to report on immigration then underway. It also hired 11-year-old Alicia Hernandez to write a weekly column describing West Marin from a young Latina’s perspective, and in 1986, a special issue of Newsweek magazine named her one of “100 New American Heroes.”

In 1995, the paper sent reporters to Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, and to war-torn Croatia. In 1997, a Light reporter went to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Portugal’s Azores to research historic immigrations from those islands.

The immigration reports won both journalism awards and attention from other news media. In a special report on America’s First Amendment, [ German’s ARD television network] in 1989 observed, “America’s small newspapers top the list of things US citizens can take pride in, and among America’s best small papers is The Point Reyes Light.” [ “Rural Weekly Grows from Postwar Roots,” an article published in the March 5, 1998, Point Reyes Light on the occasion of the newspaper’s 50th anniversary. ]

The Plotkin Era

In late 2005, Dave Mitchell sold the "Light" to Bolinas resident Robert Plotkin. The two men soon had a falling out, culminating in a physical encounter outside the newspaper's office the following February. In May 2006, a Marin Superior Court commissioner issued a permanent injunction prohibiting Mitchell from visiting the paper, as well as a three-year injunction barring him from contacting Plotkin and his family. [ [ "West Marin Feud: Court Keeps Newspaper Figures Apart"] by Mark Prado, "Marin Independent Journal", May 13, 2006, retrieved September 11, 2006.] The following August, Plotkin obtained a court injunction forbidding Mitchell from posting his column on the [ Bodega Bay Navigator] website. The ruling was based on a non-competition clause signed by Mitchell at the time of the "Light's" sale. [ [ "Point Reyes News Feud Flares with Injunction"] by Paul Liberatore, "Marin Independent Journal", August 24, 2006, retrieved September 11, 2006.] [ [ "Former Light owner suffers setback"] by Nancy Isles Nation, "Marin Independent Journal", October 7, 2006, retrieved October 16, 2006.] [ [ "Competition & the 1st Amendment"] by Robert Plotkin, "Point Reyes Light" September 9, 2006, retrieved September 11, 2006.] In January 2008, Mitchell and Plotkin said they had reached out-of-court settlements on "a pair of lawsuits and countersuits, which involved financial and non-financial matters". The terms were not disclosed. [cite news | first=Mitchell | last=David V. | coauthors= | title=Lawsuits against and by Robert Plotkin settled out of court | date= [2008-01-24 | publisher= | url = | work =Parsely Sage & Timely (blog) | pages = | accessdate = 2008-01-25 | language = ]

Plotkin initially relied on a succession of interns recruited from journalism schools for much of the paper's reporting. "The only way to get the right esprit de corps — the people directed to a higher calling — is to invite [journalism students] to join the Round Table and go on a quest for the chalice," Plotkin told a "Los Angeles Times" reporter. "I fashion myself as sort of a Che Guevara. This paper is the Dunkirk of literary journalism. Our backs are against the wall. The Huns are upon us. It's time to fight."Bringing Flair to the Point Reyes Light; The upstart publisher of the Pulitzer-winning weekly has angered some readers with his brand of journalism," by John M. Glionna, "Los Angeles Times" pg B1, May 28, 2006.]

In his first months, Plotkin published a sprinkling of edgier stories, which both stirred controversy while helping garner attention far beyond West Marin. Subjects included a local rapist, a body found by a mushroomer, and a satanic gathering near Point Reyes with a picture of a young woman biting into a severed goat head. Such stories, and the editorial sensibility behind them, led to angry letters from some readers, but also to profiles in the "San Francisco Chronicle", [ [ "Stirring up the Point Reyes Light Newspaper's new owner upsets and fascinates locals"] by Peter Fimrite, "San Francisco Chronicle," April 28, 2006, retrieved November 14, 2006.] "Los Angeles Times" and "New York Times". ["On a Fault Line, a Divide Opens Between a Newspaper Editor and His Predecessor" by Patricia Leigh Brown, "New York Times", May 10, 2006, pg 22] In June 2006, Plotkin wrote editorial apologies for two items: a photo of young teens dancing in a manner that some saw as suggestive and for coverage that seemed to dismiss efforts by local merchants to encourage local shopping. The latter resulted in several merchants refusing to sell the next issue.

During his first year, Plotkin wrote fewer editorials than Mitchell and less about the community. He sometimes took an unorthodox approach, such as publishing pictures of and by his children, as well as a 1920s essay by T. E. Lawrence. But a one-year anniversary issue composed largely of material reprinted from the previous 12 months displayed wide and varied local coverage with an emphasis on feature stories and profiles. Plotkin took the occasion to note that while circulation has increased, income was down due to more readers purchasing the newspaper from merchants, who take a 25% cut. [ "The Silent Majority of happy readers must take out subscriptions for the Light to survive" "Point Reyes Light," pg 3, November 9, 2006.] As would later be revealed, income was also reduced by a bookkeeper's $62,000 embezzlement scheme. [ [ "Former Point Reyes Light worker guilty of theft"] , "Marin Independent Journal", June 5, 2007, retrieved June 12, 2007.]

In April 2007, Plotkin converted production from manual paste-up to electronic publishing, while instituting a redesign by the Tampa firm Garcia Media that that employed color pages and a more contemporary style. ["The Redesign of the "Light", "Point Reyes Light" editorial, April 5, 2007, pg. 4] Plotkin also announced expanded coverage to Fairfax, a town bordering but outside West Marin. These changes further galvanized the newspaper's critics, who complained that the "Light" had lost its regional focus, local voice, and historical roots. [ [ "Musings on the Life and Death of The Point Reyes Light"] by Elizabeth Whitney, "Coastal Post Online", May 2007, retrieved May 16, 2007.] [ [ Jon Carroll column] "San Francisco Chronicle", May 21, 2007, retrieved May 29, 2007.]

A competing newspaper, the [ "West Marin Citizen"] , debuted on July 5, 2007 (following a pilot edition in June) – published by "Bodega Bay Navigator" publisher Joel Hack, edited by former "Light" managing editor Jim Kravets, and staffed by several of his former colleagues. The papers backers said the paper would place more emphasis on community reporting. In response, Plotkin noted that the "Light" had already become more community focused through the addition of a weekly calendar section, an expanded letters section, and a page marking noteworthy achievements. He predicted that reader interest in the new paper would be fleeting. [ [ "Nothing laid-back about paper's readers"] by Peter Fimrite,"San Francisco Chronicle", June 9, 2007, retrieved June 9, 2007.]

The "Light" and the "Citizen" were the subject of a critique in the January 2008 Columbia Journalism Review. Author Jonathan Rowe, a station host at KWMR, described the struggles of the "Light" under Plotkin, including Plotkin's reliance on unpaid interns, perceived lack of coverage of local civic matters, and house style that, Rowe argued, appears written more for an outside audience than for the community. [cite news | first=Jonathan | last=Rowe | coauthors= | title=The Language of Strangers | date=2008-01 | publisher= | url = | work =Columbia Journalism Review | pages = | accessdate = 2008-01-09 | language = ]


* Dave and Wilma Rogers 1948-1951 (Baywood Press, first issue March 1948)
* Al and Madonna Bartlett 1951-1956 (Baywood Press)
* George and Nancy Sherman 1956-1957 (Baywood Press)
* Don and Clara Mae DeWolfe 1957-1970 (Changed to Point Reyes Light in 1966)
* Michael and Annabelle Gahagan 1970-1975
* Dave and Cathy Mitchell 1975-1981
* Ace Ramos and Rosalee Laird 1981-1983
* Dave Mitchell 1984-2005
* Robert Plotkin 2005-current


* Art Rogers has provided photographs published in the feature "Point Reyes Family Album' since 1975. The Album's pages include portraits of babies and newlyweds, panoramic photos of multi-generation familily gatherings, and then-and-now pairings showing the passage of time in local families and places. One of Rogers' 1980 photos for the Album, of a local couple holding eight puppies, was used by Jeff Koons as the basis for a sculpture called "String of Puppies," After Koons put several of the sculptures on sale at a New York gallery, Rogers sued for copyright infringement, winning at the District Court in 1990 and winning an appeal in 1992. (See Rogers v. Koons.) The case was eventually settled out of court and is frequently referred to in articles on the appropriation or "transformative reinterpretation" of one artist's work by another. [ [ Constance L. Hayes, "The New York Times," September 19, 1991, "A Picture, a Sculpture and a Lawsuit"] , accessed June 18, 2008] [ [ Ronald Sullivan, "The New York Times," April 3, 1992, "Appeals Court Rules Artist Pirated Picture of Puppies"] , accessed June 18, 2008]


In addition to the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the "Point Reyes Light" consistently wins awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and National Newspaper Association, including nine awards for work done in 2006. ["The Light wins three national and 9 [sic] state awards," "Point Reyes Light," pg 8, July 19, 2007]


External links

*" [ Point Reyes Light] " Official website
* [ Robert Plotkin bio]
* [ David Mitchell's blog]
* [ "West Marin Citizen"]
* [ KWMR West Marin news podcasts]

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