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...

After growing up in a neighborhood of "beige living rooms and tweedy residents" in the hills above UC Berkeley, Mitchell discovered his affinity for newspapers while an undergraduate at Stanford in the early 1960s. But not before dropping out twice. The first time, while bumming around Europe with a friend who was a Keynesian economist, he says he went away as a conservative and returned a liberal.

Indulging his bohemian instincts, he enrolled briefly at the California College of Arts and Crafts before discovering that writing, and not drawing, was his strong suit. Returning to Stanford, there was a brief and ill-fated marriage to the sister of his best friend from Cub Scout days.

By the time he shoved away from Palo Alto in 1967 with a master's degree in communications, he had married once again, to fellow graduate student Cathy Casto. After she got a newspaper job in Florida he taught high school there for a semester, and then taught journalism at a small college in the Midwest before landing his first newspaper job in Iowa. But when an editor rewrote and downplayed an exposé he had written about how a couple of restaurants were polluting a creek, he quit. The eateries were among the paper's best advertisers, he says.

Staffer Jim Kravets feeds a wood stove in the 
newsroom, which occupies part of an old creamery.
James Sanders
Staffer Jim Kravets feeds a wood stove in the newsroom, which occupies part of an old creamery.
Mitchell computerized the newspaper in the 1980s but 
still keeps his old typewriter within arm's reach.
James Sanders
Mitchell computerized the newspaper in the 1980s but still keeps his old typewriter within arm's reach.

During a fruitful 2 1/2 years as a reporter at the Sonora Union Democrat in the Sierra foothills, Mitchell realized that he wanted to be an editor. That ambition was fulfilled in 1973 when he was hired at the Sebastopol Times, a medium-sized weekly on California's North Coast. It was from there that he and Cathy came to Point Reyes Station, after placing an ad in a newspaper trade journal saying that they were looking for a small West Coast paper to buy.

Once Mitchell got his own paper, it didn't take long for it to become his obsession. "In my mind I can't separate Dave from the Light. He really has devoted his life to it," says photographer Art Rogers, who's known Mitchell for 30 years. Yet his devotion to the paper (he rarely takes a vacation) has exacted a toll. It's something that none of the three women to whom he has been married since he's owned the Light has been able to reconcile.

Mitchell is a man on a mission, seemingly oblivious to the long days and sometimes sleepless nights required to put out a weekly newspaper year after year on a shoestring. "Dave sees himself as more than just the journalist that he is," says longtime friend and unofficial local historian Dewey Livingston. "He's leaving behind an historical record of a place he's come to love, and he wants to get it right."

That doesn't mean he's always able to avoid trouble. A few years ago, after trying to take pictures at a local schoolyard during a scene being filmed there for the horror flick Village of the Damned, Mitchell was roughed up and detained, his camera confiscated by an off-duty highway patrolman acting as a security guard. But sheriff's deputies called to the scene refused to arrest him, and the District Attorney's Office declined to press charges. In the end, the righteously indignant Mitchell demanded and received apologies from both the CHP and the film company.

Much of his life is an open book.

While nude sunbathing at Red Rock Beach years ago with a lady friend and her 19-year-old daughter, Mitchell had barely gotten settled when Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame wandered over to say hello -- "All of us naked as jaybirds," Mitchell recalls. Ellsberg agreed to join them for dinner that night in San Francisco on condition that he could bring a friend. He showed up with Ron Kovic, the Vietnam War veteran whose life Tom Cruise portrayed in Born on the Fourth of July.They spent the evening swapping stories and discussing literature over bottles of wine, with the Light's readers later learning all about it.

Indeed, Mitchell in a sense has become as much of an institution as his beloved newspaper. On days after deadline, locals are forever stopping by the office to say hello and exchange gossip. "People just naturally gravitate to Dave," says entertainment attorney and Point Reyes Station refugee Robert Powsner (whose clients have included the Beatles and director Peter Bogdanovich). "He always has a story to share."

Dave Mitchell is sitting at his roll-top desk beneath a wall plaque that proclaims, "A newspaper's duty is to print the news and raise hell," railing about a story that has consumed him for weeks. A routine traffic stop of two teenagers by rangers attached to the national seashore had turned ugly, with the youths being pepper-sprayed while handcuffed and on the ground. The Light has been all over it, prompting the Park Service to defend its two rangers while assigning them to other duties.

Another editor might declare victory and move on, but not Mitchell. He keeps the story alive, and when the seashore's popular superintendent tries to placate the crowd at a packed community meeting by claiming to have asked the District Attorney's Office to intervene, Mitchell moves in for the kill. The Light reveals that the official has merely tried to get the DA's Office to prosecute the teenagers. (It refused.)

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