Not long ago, a large sign appeared in a pasture by a road not far from where I’m writing this. “Coming soon to this site,” it blared. You saw it and you thought: Oh, please. Not here. As you got closer, though, the smaller print became visible, and the thought was completed: “Absolutely nothing,” it said. This was thanks to a local group that had bought the land in order to prevent exactly what the sign first suggested. Out here in West Marin County, California, we live in a quiet, constant state of siege. The rolling ranchlands and ocean beaches are iconic. Point Reyes National Seashore, which occupies much of the coastland, draws more than two million visitors a year. You scan the unspoiled hills and it is not hard to imagine encampments of developers, waiting like guerrillas for their moment to descend.
Actually, much of the land is protected, which makes the remaining pockets and edges all the more contested. The social ecology is something else. A berserk real-estate market and Silicon Valley money have been changing the towns that occupy this special landscape. They are precariously unspoiled. Most of the people who live here couldn’t afford to if they had to buy in now. The protected seashore is expanding literally to the edge of Point Reyes Station, which is the closest thing to a hub. More tourists are coming, traffic is increasing, and second and third homes are proliferating. Carmel-ization is a pervasive dread. The resulting tensions are ripe journalistic fodder, but instead of just covering them, the local paper itself has become a focal point.
The Point Reyes Light is almost as iconic as the landscape it inhabits. In 1979, the Light became the little paper that could, when it won a Pulitzer for its investigations of the cult-like Synanon, a local drug rehab center whose officials once left a rattlesnake in the mailbox of a critic. But the prize meant less to local readers than did weekly news about the National Seashore’s expansion plans, run-off into Tomales Bay, and reckless motorcycle riders who accelerate into blind curves and fly off coastal Highway One (not that anyone’s grief would be less than total about that). It was our forum.
But a couple of years ago, the Light changed hands, and the new owner soon became an embodiment of the worst fears for the area the newspaper used to symbolize.
Now West Marin has a second weekly, the West Marin Citizen, which has made a strong start with the Light’s disaffected readers. “Newspaper war” may be too strong a term; the competition is low-key, as is most of life out here. Like former spouses at a social gathering, the two weeklies barely acknowledge one another’s presence. But the advertiser and subscriber bases are limited (total population is about 15,000) and few people expect that two papers can survive for long.
In part, this is a story about personality, and how it filters through a paper and shapes the response of readers, especially in a small town. But at a more basic level it is about what readers want and what newspapers ultimately are for. It is about journalism as a service to a community versus journalism as a vehicle for the ambitions of writers and editors.
There must be a Nexis file somewhere with the term “nude beaches” highlighted in yellow, which every reporter consults before coming to West Marin. For what it’s worth, I’ve been here seven years and nude beaches haven’t crossed my radar once (surfers are another matter). As for “aging hippies,” the other obligatory trope—well, that’s a bit like describing New York City as a place where everyone goes clubbing until 4 a.m.
The truth is a lot more interesting. Point Reyes Station is a little under forty miles northwest of San Francisco, though because of the landscape and the narrow, winding roads, it is psychologically at least three times that far away. The “aging hippies” actually were industrious, back-to-the-land types who joined the old ranching families, artists, academics, and tree cutters and trades people out here. New money has arrived more recently, as have Hispanics, who make up half the elementary school.