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...

Such aggressive pursuit of a good story -- especially the kind of story that sticks up for the little guy -- helps explain why the Light remains such an endearing institution. "Dave isn't going to back down on a story no matter what, which says a lot in a community where everyone knows everyone else," says gonzo journalist John Grissim, who was a reporter at the Lightin the 1980s and still subscribes to the paper, despite living near Seattle.

"If you live out here, the Light is required reading," says author, media critic, and West Marin resident Norman Solomon. Former Mother Jones Editor Mark Dowie, another local resident, agrees, and notes that since unincorporated Point Reyes Station has no community government, "the letters page of the Light really isour town forum."

Yet Mitchell has his critics. "Dave has a lot of people upset with him a good deal of the time," says Donna Sheehan, who once led a campaign to stop Caltrans from spraying pesticides along area highways. After deeming the Light's coverage of her efforts insufficient, she went so far as to establish a 100-watt community radio station (its studio is next door to the newspaper) as an alternative voice.

Jacob Resneck, one of two Light staff writers.
James Sanders
Jacob Resneck, one of two Light staff writers.
Ad sales chief Sandy Duveen helps paste up the 
James Sanders
Ad sales chief Sandy Duveen helps paste up the newspaper.

Appealing to both counterculture liberals -- only 14 percent of West Marin voters supported President Bush in November -- and more conservative ranchers, the Light is seldom dull. That's largely owing to Mitchell's penchant for the unexpected. In the early '80s, after discovering that Eleanor "Ranger" Hamilton, a widowed sex therapist who had just turned 70, was moving to town, Mitchell prevailed upon her to write a sex column. It was hugely popular (and even earned her an appearance with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show) well before such columns gained widespread acceptance. "I don't think Dave ever altered a single word," recalls Hamilton, now 95 and living in Oregon.

Exhibiting a similarly deft touch, Mitchell decided that the paper needed a Spanish-language columnist and turned to 13-year-old Alicia Hernandez, the daughter of migrant workers. For her innocent and often poignant tales of life as an immigrant teenager, Newsweek magazine named Hernandez one of its "100 Young American Heroes."

Grissim, a former Rolling Stone editor fond of writing about surfers, strippers, and pool sharks, was living in Stinson Beach when Mitchell recruited him as a columnist. Friends with the owners of San Francisco's O'Farrell Theatre, Jim and (the late) Artie Mitchell (no relation to Dave), Grissim wrote the screenplay for the brothers' 1985 pornographic comedy The Graffenberg Spot; got himself arrested while partying with Hunter S. Thompson; and scored a rare interview with Marilyn Chambers while firing an Uzi with the porn star at a shooting range in Nevada. In each case, the Light's readers were brought along for the ride.

For 10 years, the Light has been home to Kathryn Lemieux, who produces her Feral West cartoon strip as a labor of love "for the sheer pleasure of doing something topical" in between her work as one of the cartoonists who draw the nationally syndicated Six Chix. The strip she does for Mitchell contemplates life in West Marin through animal characters, including Mavis, a cranky cow frustrated at having to produce at an organic dairy, and two mermaids with a pet shark named Fluffy who's always in trouble.

It's obvious that Mitchell is as proud of his newspaper's sense of humor as he is of its investigatory exploits. Take, for example, the story a few years ago about a cow that had to be brought down from a tree. (It had fallen into the tree from an overhanging ledge.) And there's the story of the woman who tried to commit suicide by driving her SUV over a cliff and onto a beach that is a favorite spot for nudists; she was wearing a seat belt and survived. The Lightcaptioned a photo of a police helicopter hovering above naked bystanders, "A Startling Spectacle."

Unquestionably, the paper's most popular feature (for the last 25 years) is Sheriff's Calls, a compendium of what passes for crime in congenitally peaceful West Marin. It's quintessential small-town stuff, lifted almost verbatim from the cops' incident logs. For example: "Deputies rushed to Stinson Beach to investigate a report of parental assault only to find a childless couple practicing their primal therapy class." Or, "A woman told deputies someone called and demanded a ransom. She said it must have been a wrong number since she wasn't missing anybody." Or, "A bartender complained that a man was trying to pick up women by spilling drinks on their feet. When the bartender stopped refilling the man's drinks, the man went next door and got a glass of water. A deputy ordered him off the premises." Among Mitchell's more recent favorites: "A woman said her brother-in-law had attached an automatic milking machine to her breasts. Deputies who interviewed her decided she was hallucinating."

Says Mitchell: "These are things that make life fun."

Just how the Light won its Pulitzer is the stuff of which movies are made: A struggling, ambitious young couple scrapes together the down payment to buy a floundering country newspaper. They set up shop in an antiquated little newsroom and dedicate themselves to providing insightful local news coverage; and they don't back down after running up against the bad guys, in the form of a violent and litigious cult.

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