Amid little fanfare, Mitchell sold his Pulitzer Prize-winning -- and financially ailing -- newspaper to Robert Plotkin, 35, a former Monterey County deputy district attorney and a 2003 graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
"I'm like an old quarterback who's had a string of good seasons, but now it's time to make way for younger talent," says Mitchell, 61, whose 4,000-circulation tabloid published in the tiny West Marin community of Point Reyes Station (population 350) is among the nation's most respected small-town newspapers.
The iconoclastic, pipe-smoking Mitchell -- long a legend in journalism circles -- says he will stay on as a part-time employee and consultant to the new owner and, for now at least, continue to write his homespun column, Sparsely, Sage and Timely. Neither he nor Plotkin will disclose the terms of the sale. After losing money for several years, Mitchell says, the Light returned to profitability in 2005.
Plotkin, a self-described journalism junkie, grew up in San Diego and spent his summers during childhood with grandparents in Israel. After college, law school, and a federal judicial clerkship, he spent two years as a prosecutor, during which time, he says, he found himself "slipping off to Starbucks to read the New York Times" and realized that journalism was his calling.
After finishing journalism school, Plotkin moved to Bolinas in Marin County with his wife, Lys, and their young son, with the idea of becoming a freelance foreign correspondent. But earlier this year, after reading in SF Weekly about Mitchell's struggle to keep the Light going ("Can Light Stay Afloat?," Dec. 8, 2004), he decided to try to acquire the newspaper.
"Dave has deemed me worthy to carry on his extraordinary work, which, second to my wife agreeing to marry me, is the highest compliment I have ever received," Plotkin says.
The sale marks the end of an era.
In his years at the newspaper, Mitchell never let the Light's size diminish his journalistic zeal. Living in a one-bedroom cabin and retaining a small salary for himself, he four times sent reporters overseas to research the origins of Marin's ethnic communities. He once hired the 13-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants to write a weekly column in Spanish and also brought in a retired therapist in her 70s to write a sex column.
Under his tutelage, the newspaper campaigned to force the National Park Service to reopen Point Reyes Lighthouse after it had been locked and neglected for years, and tirelessly advocated for the protection of Marin's bucolic vistas from commercial encroachment.
However, the Light's claim to fame was winning the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for public service for its work in exposing the Synanon cult -- whose leader, Charles Dederich, set up a commune nearby and in the mid-1970s proclaimed Synanon a religion. Dederich ruled the commune with an iron hand, dictating who slept with whom, ordering forced sterilizations, and severely punishing dissenters, including those who tried to escape.
Few people knew what the group was up to until Mitchell and his then-wife, Cathy, began writing about it, despite personal threats. The Light stuck with the story after large media outlets retreated when Synanon filed dozens of lawsuits. It wasn't until a live rattlesnake was placed in the mailbox of a Synanon dissenter's attorney that big news organizations resumed paying attention.
"Dave Mitchell's legacy extends far beyond the Light's readership; he's a role model for what journalists are supposed to be," says John Grissim, a former Rolling Stone editor whom Mitchell recruited to write about the Marin counterculture in the '80s. Author, media critic, and West Marin resident Norman Solomon agrees. "For Dave, the Light has been a labor of devotion, and his departure as editor is a real milestone."
The Light was nearly bankrupt when Dave and Cathy Mitchell bought it in 1975. Having spent their life savings to come up with the $37,500 sales price, they couldn't afford a place to live, and for a time lived in the newspaper office, sleeping on a sofa that folded out to a bed.
Even after winning the Pulitzer, the newspaper's finances weren't robust. After the couple split up in 1981, neither one could afford to buy the other's interest. Dave Mitchell went to work as a reporter at the old San Francisco Examiner. But when the Light's buyer defaulted, he got the paper back in 1984. When he moved the paper into its current offices in a converted creamery, volunteers from among his readers helped him remodel.
The newspaper racked up dozens of state and national journalism awards and attracted interns and young reporters from the nation's finest journalism schools eager for the chance to work for Mitchell.
But through three failed marriages and recurrent bouts of depression, Mitchell had kept a secret about the Light: To keep it going, he had subsidized the paper with an inheritance he received when his father died in 1984. And, as he confided to SF Weekly last year, the money was nearly gone.
His biggest fear was that whoever might buy the paper wouldn't respect the Light's tradition of community service. "I had more than one newspaper broker tell me the only buyer I'd ever find would be a newspaper chain, and that scared me to death," Mitchell says. "When Robert [Plotkin] showed up on my doorstep, it was like the answer to a prayer."
Plotkin, meanwhile, says "public service" -- not profit -- motivated him to buy the Light. "If we continue to put out the finest small paper in the country, I'm confident people will be willing to pay for the journalism we provide."