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West Marin's Two-Paper Town

The Light vs. the Citizen



Photos by Tim Porter

(page 1 of 3)

To you it is the idyllic landscape practically on your doorstep, and the towns that seem miraculously unspoiled. To us it’s home, and a place that is under a chronic state of siege.

The real estate out here in West Marin has gone berserk. Second and third homes stand empty where our neighbors used to be. Most of us couldn’t afford to live here if we had to buy in now — or if we hadn’t lucked into parental homes or below-market rents. Traffic is increasing, and Carmel-ization is a pervasive dread.

The resulting tensions are ripe journalistic fodder. But instead of just covering the story, the local paper—the Point Reyes Light—itself has become a focal point of them. Until recently, the Light was almost as iconic as the landscape it inhabits. It won a Pulitzer back in 1979, but that was less important to readers here than the weekly news about runoff into Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore’s expansion plans.

A couple of years ago the Light changed hands, and the new owner became an embodiment of the worst fears for the place the newspaper used to symbolize. Now West Marin has a second weekly, the Citizen, and it has made a strong start with the Light s disaffected readers.

Few expect the two papers to survive for long. In part this is a story about personality, and how it filters through a paper and shapes the response of readers in a small town. But more basically it is about what newspapers ultimately are for: journalism as a service to a community versus journalism as a vehicle for the ambitions of writers and editors.
 

The Reality of West Marin

You’ve heard the clichés: nude beaches, aging hippies, that whole routine. The truth about West Marin is a lot more interesting. It is an eclectic mix of ranchers, artists, academics, service workers, and industrious back-to-the-landers who came out here in the 1970s and pretty much have set the tone since. The area is unincorporated, which means there’s no local government. An inventive civic culture has filled the void.

So too, until recently, did the Light . Under Dave Mitchell, who owned the paper from 1975 (with a brief hiatus) until 2005, the Light became a local institution, not always loved but almost always read. The Light was where people found out about garage sales and events at the Dance Palace community center. The weekly Sheriff’s Calls provided a laconic window into local life, from cows in the road to restraining orders against ex-spouses. The photographs by Art Rogers, who follows families through the years, provided a gentle, poignant sense of time and change.

The soul of the paper was the letters. People out here are well-read and not lacking in opinions, and Mitchell printed almost all their missives. Sometimes they ran on for pages; debates would go on for weeks. The lighthouse on the paper’s masthead was the closest thing to the town’s visual image of itself.

Mitchell himself is a gangly man with a bit of a stoop and a long brooding face. At the paper, he was not a saint by any means. He rode his hobbyhorses and had a thumb on the reportorial scale, as most editors of small publications do. He was moody and not always nice. But no one ever questioned his commitment to this place. “Dave was a son of a gun but he was our son of a gun,” one resident said later.
In recent years, however, Mitchell had seemed more stooped than usual, and withdrawn. It was well known, too, that the Light had been skirting financial trouble. It wasn’t quite a deathwatch, but people were wondering if one might be coming.

 

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