Monday, March 23, 2015

Decade-long battle between rural California weeklies ends with Point Reyes Light still shining

For years, two weeklies with contrasting styles and intriguing histories have competed for readers and advertisers in rural western Marin County, California (Census Bureau map). Because they struggling to stay afloat, the future of both was up in the air. Now, after two unsuccessful merger attempts, the owner of the insurgent West Marin Citizen has agreed to sell her paper to the Point Reyes Light, which will shut down the Citizen, Paul Liberatore reports for the daily Marin Independent-Journal. (Maps of the World map)

The newspapers have a complicated history, born mainly out of spite. Founded in 1948, the Light won a Pulitzer in 1979 for reporting on the Synanon cult. It was sold in 2005 to Robert Plotkin, "a brash former Monterey County prosecutor who came to West Marin with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in Manhattan and an intense personality that was more Grand Central Station than Point Reyes Station. The then-35-year-old newcomer immediately raised eyebrows when he announced that his goal was to turn the Light into 'The New York Times of West Marin,' a pretentious remark that signaled to the many educated, liberal readers of the Light that this arrogant outsider had an unrealistic view of what small-town community journalism is all about."

Joel Hack, editor and publisher of the Bodega Bay Navigator, disliked Plotkin so much that he launched the Citizen in 2007 to compete with the Light. Plotkin sold the Light in 2010, and Hack retired in 2011, turning over ownership of the Citizen to Linda Petersen, who had been advertising director. Since then, the papers have battled on a much smaller scale, mostly fighting for revenue, Liberatore writes. Their styles are completely different. The Citizen, "pretty much a one-woman operation, focuses on softer stuff, publishing features and photos contributed by local residents. The Light, with two full-time reporters, specializes in hard news."

Petersen, 67, who plans to retire and move closer to family in Oregon, asked Liberatore, “What’s the point of me pushing on here when it’s getting more and more difficult to get the paper out each week?” Tess Elliott, 35-year-old editor of the Light, said the  deal is "in the spirit of a merger," and said "she and Petersen envision a hybrid of the two papers, including in the new Light the folksy community journalism that has been the hallmark of the Citizen." Former Light owner Dave Mitchell, who won the Pulitzer, told Liberatore, "I'm very pleased. It's very hard for two weeklies in a place this small, splitting all the advertising, splitting all the readers, splitting all the subscriptions. There isn't enough population here to sustain two papers in the long haul." (Read more)

Meanwhile, a group of weeklies in the more populated part of Marin County has been sold.

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