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June 20-26, 2007

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The Byrne Report

Looking at the 'Light'

By Peter Byrne

Last week, I wandered over to Point Reyes Station to check out the demonstration against Robert Plotkin, the owner, publisher and editor of the Point Reyes Light newspaper. I was shocked by the vehemence of the anti-Plotkin threats emanating from the mouths of the 10 people (not counting five reporters) seething on the sidewalk in front of the newspaper's office. "Shoplift the Light," screamed one disheveled guy before he scampered off to do whatever troubled people do in West Marin.

Reyesians, who are mostly affluent, evidently count among their number some folks who eat goat heads on the beach as part of Satanic rituals! Goat heads! They eat them!

That the Light graphically illustrated the goat-head-eating incident on its front cover last year galled the demonstrators. Former Light editor and owner Dave Mitchell said the community newspaper, which won a Pulitzer under his editorship some 30 years ago, has been turned into a "scandal sheet" by the man who paid him $500,000 for it. In compliance with a restraining order against him by Plotkin, Mitchell was careful to keep at least 75 feet from the new owner during the protest, although he did not restrain himself from approaching calumny in our conversation.

(Full disclosure: Last year, Plotkin and I talked about working together, but it did not pan out since I require a living wage. Nor are we on the same political wavelength. He endorsed the RAND Corporation's Joe Nation for Congress last year over Lynn Woolsey, whom I venerate for her antiwar courage, and he wrote an idiotic editorial praising genetically modified foods. Defying factual reality, he extolled the "Green revolution" that enslaved Third World farmers to Monsanto Corp.'s modified seed stock. But I have not seen any evidence that he has allowed his weird opinions to infect the Light's news stories, which are usually professionally reported tales, written with panache and, often, a touch of humor.)

It's refreshing to see folks up in arms over their newspaper, but their complaints were of little value. Protester Elizabeth Whitney complained that the Light does not cover local news (it does) and accused the Light of the deep conspiracy involved in selling ads to businesses located all the way outside of Point Reyes Station.

Not surprisingly, this absurd demonstration was also attended by Joel Hack and Jim Kravets, who are respectively the publisher and editor of the new West Marin Pilot, a publication that was distributed for the first time on June 1, making Point Reyes perhaps the smallest two-paper town in America. Lacking the Light's financial clout and perhaps even its journalism skills, the Pilot's inaugural issue was cobbled together with badly printed photos and run-of-the-mill prose, making it dangerously close to the look and feel of the Light under the direction of Mitchell, which was staler than day-old toast.

It seems evident to me that Plotkin breathes journalism day and night, and has responded to the expressed desires of his provincial readers. Local columnists grace the pages every week with information and opinion. The June 7 issue set the record straight on the misguided attempt to shut down the local oyster farm. This summer, two young intern-reporters are doing a series on how global warming will affect West Marin.

It is true that Plotkin, 36, comes across as slightly narcissistic, but if I was surrounded by townies waving pitchforks and whale-oil lanterns, I'd probably be me-centric, too. Could it be that Mitchell, 63, back-stabbed Plotkin by abruptly backing out of a promise to help Plotkin learn the rural publisher-editor role--which makes one a lightening rod for all sorts of disaffected nonsense? In a telephone interview, Mitchell said he walked away from the Light after disagreeing over a photo placement (of Prince Charles, says Plotkin) on the front page. Without getting into sordid details, Plotkin sued Mitchell, who counter-sued. One is said to have attacked the other. Money and careers are at stake. Sides have been taken, knives sharpened.

For his part, Plotkin admits that he has made mistakes, especially in underestimating the "sensitivity" of some people in the community. As a businessman, he is not happy that his personality has become what he terms a "polarizing" issue, which indeed recently prompted an anonymous prankster to print up four-page dummy spoofs of the Light entitled the Point Reyes Dim. But he is justifiably proud of his role in promoting journalistic excellence, while working to turn the Light into a self-supporting enterprise.

As a guy who spends a lot of time basking in the environs of Point Reyes National Seashore, I am happy to see the Light resurrected from the doldrums of mediocrity. The good people of West Marin should be proud of their local newspaper.

Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.