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...

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. [page]

When the paper's new owner failed to make financing payments in 1984, Mitchell got the Light back. 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.)

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.”

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. [page]

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.)

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 Light in 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 is our 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.

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. [page]

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 Light captioned 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.

The cult — Synanon — once had been a well-regarded drug rehabilitation center founded in Southern California. By the mid-'70s its leader, an eccentric recovering alcoholic named Charles Dederich, had built a commune in Marshall, six miles north of Point Reyes Station, and proclaimed Synanon a religion. Using mind-control methods and an internal police force, he dictated who slept with whom, ordered forced sterilizations, and subjected dissidents, including those who tried to escape, to severe beatings.

Few people knew much about what the group was up to before Dave and Cathy Mitchell came along. Dave had written several benign stories about the commune, but after hearing rumors about odd behavior there his wife urged him to take a serious look. Mitchell wrote a piece reporting that Synanon had 900 members; and that it owned a fleet of 400 vehicles, not counting scores of motorcycles, three large boats, and six airplanes.

Shortly afterward he received a phone call from a UC Berkeley sociologist, Richard Ofshe, who had a weekend home close to the commune and who had cultivated contacts within the group. At Berkeley, Ofshe had even begun to lecture about Synanon as part of a class studying Utopian societies. Having also heard rumors about Dederich's unusual behavior, Ofshe was pleased that anyone in the press wanted to investigate and offered his services to the Mitchells. He and the Mitchells collaborated over the next year to produce more than 100 articles and nearly two dozen editorials that earned the Light what is widely considered journalism's highest accolade, the Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service.

The Light's role was all the more phenomenal inasmuch as large media outlets wavered when faced with Synanon's wrath. With a battery of lawyers at its disposal, Synanon filed dozens of libel suits. After the San Francisco Examiner settled Synanon's claims against it for $2.6 million, major news organizations wilted into the background. It wasn't until cult leaders were accused of putting a live rattlesnake in the mailbox of a Los Angeles-area attorney representing a Synanon dissident that big news organizations resumed paying attention.

“It's very easy to forget how courageous Dave Mitchell was in what he did,” says media critic Ben Bagdikian, a former dean of the journalism school at UC Berkeley and a longtime Mitchell admirer. “There was a lot of intimidation. Synanon sent two black-suited members to stand outside ABC News in New York to stalk certain executives as they left the building — that sort of thing. And yet you had this tiny newspaper making an impact when big news organizations gave up.” [page]

It was a heady time for the Mitchells. TV crews and print reporters descended on them. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown held a reception for them in his office. Their readers took up a collection to send the couple to the Pulitzer luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The California Press Association named them “Publishers of the Year.” There was even a made-for-TV movie about them. For months the Mitchells and Ofshe had unsuccessfully tried to drum up interest for a book about their investigation of Synanon. After they won the prize, a publisher suddenly came up with a $25,000 advance.

“It shoved us into a different league,” recalls Cathy Mitchell, who teaches mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. But she says she soon tired of the attention. After about six weeks of traveling and giving speeches, she began to ask old friends over for dinner. “I remember saying to someone, 'Why haven't you called?'” she says. “And the answer was, 'I thought now that you're famous, you'd be getting a new set of friends.'”

Even before the Synanon investigation, Dave Mitchell's obsession with putting out the Light every week had already strained his marriage. As the post-Pulitzer euphoria wore off, he fell into depression, and the marriage soon broke apart. Mood swings and the endless hours he devoted to the paper also played a role in the failure of his two subsequent marriages, he says. “At the time I didn't know that I was clinically depressed. I just knew something was wrong. We both did. And I think we both sort of assumed that it meant something was wrong with the marriage,” he recalls. (Cathy Mitchell declined to discuss personal matters.)

Unable to buy each other out, the Mitchells sold the Light, and during the two following years at the Examiner, Dave Mitchell pulled reporting stints in Central America and Southeast Asia. But after being his own boss he chafed at having to pitch stories to editors. In selling the Light, the couple had accepted a small down payment, holding a note on the balance. Although managing to publish, the new owner never once made a payment on the loan.

Two years after leaving, Mitchell returned to the Light in triumph to claim it as his own. It was almost as if he had never left. The first week, he resumed Sparsely, Sage and Timely, his signature column, this way: “As I was saying before being so rudely interrupted ….”

In November, Mitchell did something he really hated: After letting it slide for nearly a year, he took the owner of a local restaurant to small-claims court to collect an advertising debt. It amounted to less than $3,000, but when you're losing money, every little bit counts.

“We're in a difficult situation,” he says, clenching an unlit pipe between his teeth. “A few people not paying their bills have put us in a strain.” It's another Friday; exactly a week since the phone call from the bank prompted him to drive to the cabin for his checkbook. But there's neither desperation nor self-pity in the editor's voice. “We're not in a crisis,” he says. A crisis is not being able to publish next week. And Mitchell isn't thinking about that, even though, with his grubstake dwindling, the laws of economics appear tilted against him.

He's got plans for a quarterly travel publication, and he talks of extending the Light's circulation area, although it's difficult to see why anyone in Petaluma — 19 miles and half a world away from Point Reyes Station's isolated splendor — might want to pick up the newspaper.

In the meantime, he'll hunker down.

At the Stage Coach Cafe, a posse of regulars huddles over breakfast each morning; until recently, Mitchell was foremost among them. They're already missing him. That's because it's cheaper to cook at home.

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