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...

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 Lightcould be found.

When the paper's new owner failed to make financing payments in 1984, Mitchell got the Lightback. He was able to move it to its current offices in the town's converted old creamery, a wooden barnlike structure with a tin roof, only after community volunteers chipped in to help with remodeling. "It was like an old-fashioned barn-raising," he recalls. In 1987, the paper was still hand-to-mouth when Mitchell used the proceeds from a legal settlement to install computers. His third wife, a computer technician whom he married in 1984 (he was married briefly last year to a Guatemalan woman), oversaw the transition.

"I see Dave as a genius at being able to survive, although don't ask me how he manages to do it," says social activist Donna Sheehan, who has sometimes clashed with Mitchell. (It was her brainstorm in 2002 to persuade 50 women to lie nude in a field on the outskirts of Point Reyes Station, with their bodies positioned to spell out "Peace" -- a photo of which was first published in the Light, sparking a wave of copycat peace protests worldwide.)

Dave Mitchell outside the newspaper office.
James Sanders
Dave Mitchell outside the newspaper office.
Mitchell in the composing room.
James Sanders
Mitchell in the composing room.

Frugality partly explains the Light's longevity. Mitchell acknowledges taking a salary of only $47,500 the past several years, although he says he often ends up using part of it to help with the operational expenses. Asked how he could afford to send a reporter to Europe and Central America in successive years during the 1990s to write about the origins of West Marin's ethnic communities, he replies, "So it meant I didn't buy a new car."

There are no frills at the Light.

Mitchell, his two full-time reporters, and his chief of ad sales work into the wee hours each Wednesday pasting up newspaper pages for printing on the other side of the hills in San Rafael. "The one time I got out of here before midnight, when I got home my wife thought I was an intruder," jokes reporter Jim Kravets, who came to work at the Light last August. After putting the paper to bed and grabbing a few hours of sleep, Kravets and fellow reporter Jacob Resneck are up early on Thursday, delivering newspaper bundles to area post offices and businesses. On Friday, the slowest day of the week, they join their boss in brandishing brooms and dust mops to clean the office. "We're our own janitors," Mitchell explains.

"The paper's always been held together with Popsicle sticks and coat hangers," says Schinske, who was fresh out of journalism school at UC Berkeley when he started with Mitchell part time in 1992. "Dave's always managed to make payroll, although there have been a few times when he's asked people to sit on their checks for the weekend."

Victoria Schlesinger, a former Light reporter who's attending the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism this year, recalls the time when, sensing Mitchell was short of funds, she offered to "wait awhile" before being paid. But he wouldn't let her do it. "He said, 'No, we can manage it.' That's just the way Dave is," Schlesinger says. "You know he's sacrificing to do what he does, and it sort of inspires the people who work for him, who see his dedication, to want to sacrifice, too."

But as Mitchell confides, not even the noblest intentions could have gotten him through lean times had it not been for the $300,000 he received upon the death of his father, a former vice president and minor partner in a San Francisco printing company. His dad's death in 1984 coincided with Mitchell's claiming the Light for himself, after finally buying Cathy Mitchell's half-interest. "The paper's had its ups and downs financially, and the [inheritance] has certainly made the difference during some of the downs," he says.

The problem is that, after years of subsidizing the newspaper, his nest egg is almost gone.

Indeed, the paper has not been profitable since 2001, Mitchell says. Earlier this year Schinske reluctantly advised his former mentor that if the Light is to climb out of the red, he should consider letting one of his two reporters go. It's no surprise to Schinske that Mitchell refused. "I think Dave would probably rather sell his house and move back into the newspaper office than to do that."

Bearded and disheveled, with eyes that seem to pierce rather than just see, the lanky, 6-foot-4 Mitchell looks like a casting director's notion of a college professor. A fast-walking, slow-talking raconteur about all things Marin, he is instantly recognizable wherever he goes in the communities served by the Light, whether afoot or behind the wheel of his well-worn red Acura Legend, not uncommonly with pipe smoke billowing from the sunroof. (His personalized license plate reads -- what else? -- "LIGHT."

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