The Language of Strangers

How a hotshot editor with big ideas failed to comprehend the soul of community journalism

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.

It is not always an easy mix. Ranchers and environmentalists butt heads over coyotes, bovine run-off, and maximum house size, to name just a few items on a long list. But the basic ambience has been one of live and let live, which, happily, there’s been enough space to accommodate. Politically the land ethic is a given, as are habitat concerns generally. But debates over the place of humans and their creations in the natural scheme—an ecologically based oyster farm in the National Seashore, for example, or a footbridge over a creek—can take on a theological intensity. Another ingredient in the mix is a western libertarian streak. The area is unincorporated, which means there’s no local government. An inventive civic culture has filled the void.

The absence of local government has meant something else, too—a lack of a civic forum. That’s the role the Light has filled. 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 (which was designed and built largely by volunteers). The weekly feature, “Sheriff’s Calls,” was a laconic window into daily life, listing everything from cows in the road to restraining orders against ex-spouses. The photographs by Art Rogers, which follow families through the years, provided a gentle, poignant sense of time and change.

If the town had a visual icon, it was the lighthouse on the masthead, which was a reference to the Point Reyes lighthouse, from which the paper takes its name. And the soul of the paper—and some would say the town—were the letters. People out here are well-read and not lacking in opinions, and Mitchell printed almost all of their missives, though not always right away. Sometimes they ran on for pages.

Mitchell himself is a gangly man with a bit of a stoop and a long, brooding face. 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 nobody ever questioned his commitment to this place. In recent years, however, he seemed more stooped than usual, and withdrawn. It was well known, too, that the Light had been skirting financial trouble. Dave had gone through a $200,000 inheritance to keep it afloat. He said the paper was back in the black, but no one knew how long that could last. It wasn’t quite a deathwatch, but people were wondering if one might be coming.

Robert Plotkin appeared out of nowhere. What we knew was from the papers: he was a former assistant district attorney in Monterey County who had gone to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and then moved to Bolinas, a town about twelve miles south of Point Reyes Station. Now he was buying the Light for half a million dollars.

It wasn’t much to go on. And yes, people would have been more comfortable with someone local. But then again, maybe not. And if half a million seemed a lot: it meant that he had money to spend, which meant that the Light would stay on. I think it’s fair to say that the game was Plotkin’s to lose—and he seemed determined to do that almost from the start.

First, there was the braggadocio and self-dramatization. Most people in his situation would lay low for a bit, speak with everyone and get a feel for the place. Instead, Plotkin came out talking. We read that he was going to be the “Che Guevara of literary revolutionary journalism.” The Light would become the “New Yorker of the West.” Not only that: he also was going to bestow upon us the “best and brightest” of young journalism grads. Plotkin used the Kennedy-era phrase without irony, or apparent awareness of the need for it. We were expected to be impressed. It all seemed a bit of a toot for an unproven horn.

I tried to envision a typical Light story about, say, septic issues, written as literary journalism at the ramparts. Well, maybe he would surprise us. To find out more, I invited Plotkin to join me on my weekly radio program on KWMR-FM, which is the community station here. (It was the first of three such interviews.)

Physically Plotkin is on the short side, with some resemblance to Jerry Seinfeld, including an unfortunate tendency toward snarkiness. There is a boyish quality and sweetness, too; he clearly wants to be liked. But the other side keeps getting the upper hand. On the show, he was smart on journalism generally, but less so on journalism in this small town.

I asked about the literary journalism, how it relates to the usual weekly fare of the Point Reyes Light—a meeting of the county board of supervisors, for example? Well, he said, Joan Didion wrote about county supervisor meetings. Look at her.

Joan Didion? She of the clinical dispassion and acidic eye? Didion was writing about locals, but not for them. She was trotting them out for the amusement of readers in Los Angeles and New York. That Plotkin hadn’t thought about the difference struck me as a little ominous.

Under their sales agreement, Mitchell agreed to stay and tutor Plotkin, and also continue his weekly column. In return he’d get a small salary and medical insurance. The arrangement fell apart quickly, to no one’s great surprise. Things became messy. Plotkin accused Mitchell of attempting to assault him. Lawsuits followed.

The upshot for the paper was that Mitchell’s old staff pretty much ran things at the start. Plotkin contributed headlines, editorials, and story ideas while he tried to learn the ropes. He soon showed a gift for the irritating gesture and off-key note. At first it was relatively minor things, such as the picture caption that called a French cheesemaker a “surrender monkey,” and gratuitously provocative headlines such as FCC INDECENCY FINES FOR KWMR GO UP 1000%. In fact, the station had been subject to no such fines. The FCC in Washington had raised fines generally. (As a station host, I did not appreciate the implication.) There were more serious stinkers, too, such as a front-page treatment, during Christmas week, of a brutal rape. Such occurrences became a steady drip-drip-drip, along with a self-congratulation that bordered on self-parody. We got features on the big-deal consultants Plotkin was bringing in, along with encomiums to his own stewardship. THE NEW LIGHT: ONE YEAR RETROSPECTIVE was the cover headline on the November 9, 2006, issue, under which were shots of each cover under Plotkin’s reign.

When I went back through these issues, I was surprised at how little the paper actually had changed. But it doesn’t take many drips to sour the whole can. And, as Plotkin asserted more control, the offenses deepened. A turning point came when he ran a piece on a Buy Local campaign, complete with a cartoon that portrayed local merchants as gouging customers. This one struck a nerve, but probably not the one that Plotkin had intended. Here, as elsewhere, main-street merchants struggle in a world of Kmarts and Costcos. Some give generously to local causes, and their prices are reasonable for the most part; the local pharmacy is a near-legend in this regard. And anyway, the Buy Local campaign was about keeping money in the community and keeping main street vital, not about discounts.

The merchants were incensed. They dumped their stacks of papers at the Light’s office and told Plotkin in effect to sell them himself. He dropped the subject, but bad feelings lingered.

It is a sign of the bond that existed between paper and town that a year ago in December, a local woman decided to organize a meeting at the Dance Palace to try to repair the breach, and about fifty people turned out on a winter evening—Plotkin included, which gave it the feeling of an intervention. I was out of town, but the organizer made a transcript, and it would make useful reading for journalists trying to understand what readers are looking for in local papers. (An edited version is available [LINK] at

People spoke with eloquence and palpable hurt. “When people used to complain to me about Dave Mitchell,” one person said, “I’d say, ‘The Point Reyes Light is what holds this community together. It is the center. It is the glue.’…I don’t find that to be the case any more. It breaks my heart.” The letters were a particular sore point. Plotkin wasn’t running all of them, the way Mitchell did. He wasn’t even getting back to people.

But beyond such particular complaints was a sense the paper wasn’t written for them any more. The real audience seemed to be somewhere else. Plotkin’s business model, if that’s the term, was based on free labor in the form of J-school interns. The come-on was not subtle. His announcement at the Berkeley J-school declared that he was coming in search of the “next Orwell, Kapuscinski, or Didion.”

The notice continued, in part,

I am in the process of selecting the Magnificent Seven; five literary journalists and two Magnum-quality photojournalists that will be the revolutionary vanguard of editorial quality. Every scene piece will be of Talk Of The Town quality. Every story dense with information will be written with the sophistication and wit of the Economist. Every photograph will capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called, “The decisive moment.” We will serve as a model of what a newspaper can be, so that others may learn from our example.

What can you say? Leave aside whether Plotkin himself had the editorial chops. Leave aside, too, the question that Berkeley students bristled at—namely, How could they repay their student debts as unpaid labor? (Mitchell had paid his interns.) From a local standpoint, Plotkin was assuring a steady flow of reporters who had no connection to the place, and whose aim was to audition for jobs elsewhere. “He encourages a Man from Mars voice,” a former intern told me, “like Truman Capote showing up in a small town.”

Readers picked this up as a distanced quality—a stage whisper to prospective employers in big cities far away—and sometimes as a slightly mocking tone. “They know how to write,” one person at the meeting said of the interns. “But they don’t know how to write for the community.”

Plotkin was by turns conciliatory and defensive. He had brought us “seven graduates from the best journalism schools in the country,” he protested. Why couldn’t we appreciate that? He wasn’t printing more letters because he wasn’t getting more, he said. “That’s what is disquieting to me,” another person replied. “People…are just fading away.”

That comment made me recall something I was told by a top staff member to a recently defeated member of Congress. They had known they were in trouble, he said, when they stopped receiving angry letters. If such a moment came for the Light—a moment at which people started to drop out emotionally and look for other options—it probably was the story on immigrants from Mexico out here in West Marin.

It was a journalistic staple, the local angle on the immigration raids that were a big national story at the time. But the jump page had something most readers did not expect. There, in black and white, was a picture of a local woman who was identified as undocumented. Another picture showed a seventeen-year-old Hispanic boy, a familiar presence around town, who was cited in the text as having undocumented people in his household.

I was stunned. There had been well-publicized raids about twenty miles away in San Rafael. To out these neighbors—I play basketball with the teenager on weekends—was embarrassing and unbelievable. Others felt the same way. Hispanic leaders wrote an angry letter to Plotkin and met with him. His public response was to reprint an article from the American Journalism Review that was ambivalent on the point.

Nothing else came of it. But as one of the leaders of the community uprising told me, “The trust was gone.” On my show a while later, I asked Plotkin about the episode. I wanted to see if he had learned anything, but he was unrepentant. It would be “condescending” not to print this information after the people themselves provided it, he said. (The teenager told me that he didn’t understand the reporter’s intention.)

Most people here—Mitchell included—don’t dislike Plotkin personally. But he’s a tough case, and maturity is not a strong suit. Jim Kravets, the managing editor Plotkin inherited from Mitchell, went with him to an annual festival in town and pointed out some people he should meet. His response, in effect: if anyone wanted to talk with the editor of the Light, they could approach him.

Kravets later left the Light and now edits the new paper, where several other former Light staffers have joined him. He says that by the time Plotkin realized he had to reach out, it was too late. So he retreated into a kind of defiance. “His own instincts were betraying him,” Kravets says.

The tone-deafness continued in the matter of design. When Plotkin bought the paper, Mitchell still was laying it out with a waxer and paste-up boards. An upgrade was in order. But was it really necessary to hire a top-drawer design firm from Florida that had The Wall Street Journal on its client list, and then run a piece—superstar designers put final touches on new light—celebrating it? Or to run a “Pre-Plotkin” and “Post-Plotkin” spread comparing Mitchell’s Light to his own? The design itself came out clean, corporate, and generic. One merchant told me customers thought it was a real-estate handout and picked it up without paying. The quirky, homegrown quality was gone. The clean design would resist the flotsam and jetsam—the meetings, talks, awards, what-not—that are so important in a small-town weekly.

Not only that, the lighthouse had disappeared from the masthead. The paper no longer looked the way residents see the town. It was almost as though Plotkin had kenned their worst fears and made the paper a visual embodiment of them.

That guy you see downtown on Thursday afternoons, pencil behind his ear and order pad in hand, delivering stacks of papers from the back of his car? That’s Joel Hack, and he looks a little like a Joel Hack—short, scruffy, not much troubled by sartorial concerns. He has a gruff good humor, but also conveys the impression that it would be better not to mess with him. Plotkin did.

For eleven years, Hack has put out a small paper called the Bodega Bay Navigator about thirty miles up the coast in Sonoma County. He took the paper online for financial reasons, and Plotkin made a play for the territory. Then, after Plotkin and Mitchell split, the latter began to write for the Navigator online. Plotkin sued for violation of a noncompete clause, and he included Hack in the lawsuit.

That did not go over well. With help from Plotkin’s former printer (there’s not space for every subplot, but you get the drift), Hack started the West Marin Citizen, which is the Light’s journalistic opposite—heavy on straight news and local opinion, and choc-a-bloc with meeting reports and other miscellany. The Citizen launched with the kind of community meeting people thought Plotkin would hold. As for design, Hack admits his instincts lean toward Dr. Bronner soap labels because he hates to “leave stuff out.” Hack dislikes what he calls “corporate flashy bullshit.”

Hack and Plotkin share a combative streak but not much else. The former learned journalism in high school as a photographer at a suburban Chicago weekly, where the editor told him to get as many faces into the paper as possible, and to “get all the names.” The Citizen has lots of both. Hack handles the nuts and bolts while Kravets does the words. He seems to have little ambition beyond that. “The thrill is in delivering information,” Hack says. “That’s all the reward you need.”

I asked Plotkin, in one of our on-air interviews, how he saw the difference between the two papers. He cited a recent Citizen story on a local tax issue. “We’d give that a few sentences in a box,” he said. More than one listener said to me afterward, “That’s the story I really want to read.”

Actually, the Citizen could use a bit of feature sensibility. Perhaps that will come. Meanwhile, the energy in town seems to be shifting its way. In Point Reyes Station, merchants say the Citizen is outselling the Light, sometimes by two to one. The competition appears to have been good for the Light, by the way. The features still read like student pieces and the voice still is not quite there. But the paper is more news-based and the sophomoric lapses have been less frequent. There are more letters, too.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Plotkin has hired a managing editor and pulled back from daily operations. His focus now is the Coastal Traveler, a kind of tourist guide that for years has helped support the Light. Under Mitchell, it was a newsprint giveaway. Plotkin has made it a glossy lifestyle mag with Rolex and Ducati ads, and features touting BMW dirt bikes and Zero Halliburton luggage. He is selling it for $4.95.

The new Coastal Traveler presents West Marin—actually, the whole coast down to Big Sur and Monterey—as locations to be consumed rather than as places in which to live. It provides a venue for breathy clichés about us locals (our towns are “Stalingrads of anti-corporate resistance,” for example) and for Plotkin’s paeans to his motorcycle (“I loved it like a boy loves a hottie working for Médecins sans Frontières”). Out here, praising motorcycles is a little like praising car alarms on New York’s Upper West Side. I can’t help thinking that’s part of the attraction for him.

There could be a niche for such a high-end magazine here. We do get plenty of visitors with money. And actually, there never was anything wrong with Plotkin’s vision of journalism in the abstract. It was just the setting on which he decided to impose it. Local weeklies are rare bright spots in a journalistic picture gone pretty grim. Even in an Internet age—perhaps because it is an Internet age—such papers seem to be connecting in ways larger media don’t. Just possibly, what people are hungry for in journalism is what they seek in their physical environment as well—a sense of familiarity and, most of all, place.

If people want The New Yorker, they get The New Yorker, and many out here do. But that kind of writing is the language of strangers. From a local paper, they want something else, something more neighborly. Out here at least. 

Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly and YES! magazine. The Glaser Progress Foundation provided support for this article.