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Can Light Stay Afloat? 

POINT REYES -- Can Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Mitchell keep his small, renowned, and cash-starved newspaper going? It's a question...

Wednesday, Dec 8 2004
It's Friday morning, and in the loft of the former creamery that's the newsroom of the Point Reyes Light, Editor/Publisher Dave Mitchell is holding court with the two young reporters who help him put out his weekly newspaper. For the record, it's a staff meeting, but in reality it's a journalism class, with the ever-enthusiastic Mitchell, 61, using his baritone voice to dispense reporting tips and dole out reminders about likely news items his charges should watch for in the week ahead.

Customarily during such sessions, receptionist Missy Patterson, a matronly grandmother who guards the front door from her desk at the foot of the stairs, holds Mitchell's phone calls. But this time she makes an exception. "Uh-huh, how much is it?" Mitchell asks into the receiver. "Well, I'll have to go home and get my checkbook." The newspaper, it seems, is overdrawn at the bank; time for its owner to dip into his personal savings to make payroll, something he says he's had to do with increasing regularity for a few years now.

Having won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for public service for its work in exposing the Synanon cult -- and dozens of other awards since then -- the Light, a 4,000-circulation tabloid published in the tiny West Marin County community of Point Reyes Station (population 350), is among the nation's most respected small-town newspapers. Its pipe-smoking, hell-raising editor is a legend in journalism circles. For years, talented young reporters have beaten down Mitchell's door for the privilege of working for him, as either unpaid interns or low-wage staffers. (Earlier this year, he became perhaps the first editor ever to lose two of three staffers to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism simultaneously.)

Paying himself a meager salary and living in a one-bedroom cabin in the hills above town, Mitchell has seldom abided by the expectations reserved for newspapers of the Light's size. Four times he has sent reporters overseas to investigate the origins of Marin's disparate ethnic families. He attracted national attention by recruiting the 13-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants to write a weekly column in Spanish. Ditto when he brought in a septuagenarian therapist to write a sex column. In the 1980s, the newspaper led a crusade to force the National Park Service to reopen Point Reyes Lighthouse after it had been locked and neglected for years. The paper has tirelessly championed the protection of Marin's famously bucolic vistas from commercial encroachment.

But through four failed marriages and recurrent bouts of depression, Mitchell has kept a secret about his little newspaper. During all these years, when the Light has needed money, he has subsidized it from an inheritance he received when his father died in 1984. And now, he confides, the money is nearly gone.

Nestled on either side of California Highway 1 beneath coastal hills, Point Reyes Station resembles a living postcard. As a whistle-stop for a narrow-gauge railroad that ran from Sausalito to the Russian River, it was once a gathering point for ranchers whose families came from Switzerland, Italy, and the Azores. Although dairy ranches still abound, the town that is the commercial hub of West Marin and home to the Light is no ordinary rural community.

Discovered by counterculture dropouts and retired academics in the 1960s and '70s, Point Reyes Station has more recently become a hot ticket for wealthy executives in pursuit of weekend tranquility. Already-sky-high real estate prices have vaulted into the stratosphere. During a recent week, the cheapest house listed for sale was a one-bedroom cottage for $799,000. Bed-and-breakfasts are everywhere, it seems, including one up the street from the newspaper operated by the ex-wife of the late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose best-known work was made into the movie Blade Runner. Toby's Feed Barn, the largest business on the four-block-long main street, doubles as a general store and a venue for yoga classes. There's even a Tibetan jewelry shop in town.

But the area's rarefied prosperity has not translated into good news for Mitchell's newspaper. "Frankly, as a business entity the Light made more sense 15 or 20 years ago than it does now," says Don Schinske, Mitchell's former business manager, who quit three years ago to become a lobbyist.

The problem isn't difficult to decipher. Famous for its no-growth environmentalism and boxed in by Point Reyes National Seashore, the Light's readership area offers neither the population nor the business growth needed to help a newspaper flourish. West Marin's 10,000 residents reside mostly in a dozen isolated towns tucked into idyllic valleys and coves. "The charm of the place -- the fact that things remain more or less the same -- works against an operation like Dave's," Schinske says. "He can't really grow. Meanwhile, the cost of newsprint, labor, and health insurance for his employees is killing him."

Mitchell never expected to get rich at the Light. The paper was founded in 1948, and only one of its five previous owners is believed ever to have turned a profit, he says. The Light was nearly bankrupt when Dave and Cathy Mitchell, Dave's second wife, bought it in 1975 for $37,500. They were too poor to afford a place to live, so they moved into the newspaper office, sleeping on a sofa that unfolded into a bed. It was two years before they were able to scrape up the cash to move to the cabin where Dave still resides.

The newspaper's finances didn't improve much, even after it won the Pulitzer. Suddenly in demand for speaking engagements around the country, the couple didn't bother to hire a booking agent and often charged fees that didn't recoup their travel expenses. Although the Light had one of its best years in 1980, turning a $17,000 profit, it soon languished financially. When Dave and Cathy split up in 1981, neither one could afford to buy the other's interest. Dave reluctantly went to work as a reporter for the old Examiner until a buyer for the Light could be found.

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Ron Russell


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