Citizen co-founder retires, the other reminisces

11/03/2011

Joel Hack, who created The West Marin Citizen four and a half years ago with a handful of local residents infuriated with the then publisher of this newspaper, retired last month, citing age and fatigue. “There’s only so many years left and I want to do something else,” Joel, 67, said. Linda Petersen, formerly the newspaper’s advertising director, has assumed ownership.
Joel formed The Citizen along with former Point Reyes Light managing editor Jim Kravets, who resigned as editor of The Citizen last year. Joel’s vision of a community newspaper was simple: “Print as many pictures of people as you can and spell their names right.” Jim had another set of interests and goals, which we asked him about in a recent interview.

Point Reyes Light: Will you describe the creation of The West Marin Citizen—what was that time like for you?

Jim Kravets: It was thrilling and scary. We had so much support, which was wonderful. In what seemed like seconds we conscripted the journalistic diaspora from the pre-Plotkin Point Reyes Light, and our masthead immediately swelled with big hitters like Dewey Livingston, Ellen Shehadeh, Kathryn LeMieux, Larken Bradley, Justin DeFreitas, Clint Graves, Lynn and Greg Schnitzer, Kathleen O’Neil, Janis Ceresi, Liz Bourne, Sandy Duveen and more, not to mention the dozen or so others who soon made their West Marin journalism debuts with The Citizen, including former Rolling Stone editor Michael Goldberg, Steve Quirt, Claudia Chapline, Leslie Goldberg, David Wimpfheimer, Elia Haworth, Bill Braasch, Don Moseman, Murray Suid, Bart Eisenberg, Mike Litchfield... the list goes on. I was probably most excited about the prospect of an ongoing collaboration with the Latino Photojournalism Project. From my perspective the students were a pile of gold just lying in the middle of the road. Bringing them onboard may have been at once the most obvious and best thing I did during our launch.

Perhaps my biggest worry in June 2007 was securing reporters. It was a very uneasy period until I coaxed a commitment from seasoned reporter Ian Fein, who left the venerable Martha’s Vineyard Gazette to lead The Citizen’s reporting team that quickly came to include Lisa Post Tornes in the south and Caryl Rosner Miller in the Valley.

PRL: What were your hopes and visions for The Citizen?
JK: I hoped that we’d remain true to our founding values and principles: inclusiveness, transparency, accountability and respect. For so many businesses, the mission statement is something seen during their launch and then rarely if ever seen again. I was content with any outcome so long as I could say in good faith that we stuck by our ethics and did not abandon them when they became inconvenient. It was ultimately my commitment to upholding those values that forced me to resign in October 2010.

PRL: Did you think at the time that the region would be able to support two papers?
JK: No, I did not think the region could support two papers, and I still don’t. Objective and critical readers of the newspapers see, on a weekly basis, evidence that the region cannot support two newspapers. Both papers are anemic in their coverage, as they necessarily must split the available resources. An outsider might say that with two papers this is the Golden Age of journalism in West Marin. But in fact, readers have never been so poorly served, and residents tell me enthusiasm for West Marin print journalism is at a low. I should say that the editors are doing the best they can with the resources they’ve got.
 
PRL: What was it like working for Joel?
JK: Working for Joel, or for any boss, had its ups and downs. For the most part, until the start of 2010, we had a very productive working relationship. We often worked remotely, out of our own homes, or out of the office on different days, but we’d meet weekly for lunch on Fridays. That was a real highlight for me, and I like to think for him, too. We both came away from those lunches upbeat and encouraged to do good work.

From an editorial perspective, Joel was very hands-off, more than any other publisher I’ve ever known. He allowed me full editorial control for content. As the designer, he was responsible for the layout. A regular joke he made was to call me “Dr. Bronner.” I often gave Joel far more content than he had room for, and he had to be inventive to fit it all in. He thought that sometimes the paper began to look like the Dr. Bronner’s soap bottles that have every millimeter covered in tiny text arranged in every direction.

PRL: Can you describe the circumstances of your departure?
JK: I enjoyed Joel Hack’s recent interview on KWMR, but I’d like to correct one statement about my departure from The Citizen in 2010. In the interview it was stated that I left due to “burnout.” In my farewell editorial and in an email sent to colleagues at the time of my departure I left little doubt about the reasons for my resignation, so there is no need now to speculate or re-write history.

I resigned for a very specific reason; in effect, I resigned in protest. I protested ongoing circumstances at The Citizen that were contrary to our founding values, circumstances that I was powerless to change. In particular, I had concerns about the practices the publisher was using to chart the newspaper’s future.

For many months prior to resigning I asked the publisher to join me in seeking outside assistance to help us make wise choices and realign us with our principles. The assistance might take the form of a service such as Community Mediation Board of West Marin, for example. Despite the collective urgings of a half-dozen trusted advisors, the publisher didn’t identify with our concerns and declined to join me in seeking outside assistance.

My predicament, which combined accountability for our activities with no ability to assure their integrity, was ultimately untenable. I saw my ongoing participation at the paper as tacit approval of his practices. I could be complicit or I could attempt to salvage my integrity and resign.

To re-write history and say that I resigned due to burnout is to dismiss everything that The Citizen originally stood for. There’s a cynicism, a pessimism to the “burnout” statement which dishonors core values that animate The Citizen and, if left uncorrected, make it harder for the paper to fulfill its promise to the community.

It’s like saying that Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat for the white passenger because Parks was too frail to move. Or it’s like saying the Dalai Lama lives in Northern India because he prefers the weather there to Tibet. And no, I’m not delusional and comparing my tiny action to the Civil Rights or Free Tibet movements; I just grabbed for easy examples.
 
PRL: Have you kept observant of the paper since you left? What do you think of its accomplishments, and where do you see it going from here?
JK: I think right now the paper is in survival mode. I would say the same thing about the Point Reyes Light. Both papers could be thriving, rather than merely surviving, but as they split all available revenue their respective ability to serve the community is compromised.

A good comparison might be a police force. Two police forces working independently to cover the same area is the textbook definition of inefficiency and does not provide the quality of service as one police force with twice or even 1.5 times the resources.
I hope the start of this new era at The Citizen will permit the papers to join forces, live up to their potential, and meet or exceed the community’s expectation for excellent local journalism. It would be a win-win-win for Citizen, Light and readers.
 
PRL: What are you up to these days?
JK: I’m dividing my effort between several writing and editing projects and relishing my time with my wife, family and friends.