Light buys Citizen

David Briggs
NEWSPAPERS: Linda Petersen and Tess Elliott, both of whom have worked at their respective West Marin weeklies since 2007, embrace after signing a purchase contract on Tuesday. Today’s edition of the West Marin Citizen marks its final publication.  
04/30/2015

Linda Petersen, the owner of the eight-year-old West Marin Citizen, signed a contract this week to sell the paper to the Point Reyes Light for $50,000, ending a longstanding competition for advertisers and community support first instigated by uproar over a former Light publisher.

Ms. Petersen, who is moving to Portland to be close to her children and grandchildren, said she will miss West Marin. But she is ready to leave a paper that she has largely carried on her own shoulders since she took ownership of it in 2011. 

Though she has many contributors, the task of putting the paper together falls on her. “I still love it, but it’s come to point that almost everything has been left to me,” she told the Light last week.

Light editor Tess Elliott and her partner and coworker, David Briggs, raised most of the purchase price, $35,000, from four West Marin philanthropic couples, who wish to remain anonymous, and are supplying the rest themselves. The Light will pay the remaining $15,000 through business income. 

A newly formed limited liability company controlled by Ms. Elliott and Mr. Briggs, Point Reyes Light LLC, is set to become the only member with a financial stake in the low-profit limited liability company that owns the paper.

Ms. Elliot said she has already made agreements for the work of many Citizen contributors—Mary Olson, Richard Vacha, Claudia Chapline and Charles Schultz, among others—to appear in the Light.

Over the last several years, the Light has had to pare down because of competition with the Citizen. The paper breaks even, Ms. Elliott said, but pays “barebones” salaries. The mother of a 4-year-old son, with a daughter on the way, she said she herself has little money for childcare. She also has no way to expand coverage or increase the page count without more revenue, which she hopes will come from advertisers no longer forced to split their advertising budget once West Marin has a single paper. 

Ms. Petersen also attributed her decision to move away at least in part to financial struggles, which have left her with virtually no paid staff. It has been exhausting, she says. She did not immediately seek out the Light when she made the decision to sell, but after meeting a few times with a journalism professor from Oregon, she decided to reach out to the Light. “I said, maybe I should reach out to the Light. It makes so much more sense than having an outsider come in and continue to compete,” she explained. She added that many in the community, particularly advertisers, told her they believed it was time to return to one paper.

In March, Jim Kravets, a former Light editor who was also the founding editor of the Citizen, published a lengthy blog post to announce that the Light and the Citizen were negotiating an impending sale. (Ms. Elliott says they had not yet announced the plans because the donations necessary to make the purchase had not been secured.)

Mr. Kravets proclaimed that “a tragedy was unfolding in West Marin” because the Citizen, a community resource, would cease to exist. He disputed assertions that the paper was financially unsustainable, arguing that slim margins were the name of the game and that the Citizen could be re-jiggered to increase revenues.

He has previously advocated for a single newspaper in West Marin—a belief that, in part, led him to resign from the Citizen. While he does not feel two papers are fundamentally necessary, he does not believe the Light—which he has claimed suffers from a lack of transparency as to who owns or controls it—should be the only show in town. 

In an email to the Light this week, Mr. Kravets added that the purchase should not be funded by anonymous donors. “The PRL does some really excellent work,” he wrote, “but for many reasonable people the dark money and some other poorly illuminated corners of the PRL-MMI-PRLPC stand in the way of the PRL getting all the credit it deserves for its hard work.”

The ownership structure of the Light since Robert Plotkin sold it has been a subject of confusion since early on. Here is how Ms. Elliott, who said it even took those involved in the creation of the structure a while to understand, explains it:

The Point Reyes Light is owned by a Vermont-registered low-profit limited liability company, the Point Reyes Light Publishing Company. That entity was formed specifically to purchase the paper from Mr. Plotkin. The nonprofit Marin Media Institute was formed by journalist Mark Dowie and biotech entrepreneur Corey Goodman to raise money for the purchase and to fund fellowships at the Light and other local media outlets; it also became the sole “member” of the publishing company. (The state’s online database still lists Mr. Goodman, who became a high-profile figure in the controversy over Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which this paper reported heavily on, as the agent of service for the L3C. Ms. Elliott says that information is years out of date.)

Ms. Elliott signed a contract with the publishing company in 2010 that she says gives her complete, unfettered editorial control over the paper. Many original board members of the institute, she said, actually left when she defended this independence, which is part of why there are only three board members remaining—Mr. Dowie, Phyllis Faber and David Miller—whom she emphasizes have no control over the paper’s content. 

The Citizen

The Citizen was born in 2007, an outgrowth of resentment of what was perceived as sensationalist coverage in the Light under the leadership of publisher and editor Robert Plotkin, who purchased the historic weekly from Dave Mitchell in 2005. 

Joel Hack, the publisher of the Citizen from its inaugural issue until 2010, said he had recently shut down a newspaper he ran for 17 years, the Bodega Bay Navigator, when a printer suggested he start a new one in West Marin. He reached out to people he knew in the area, and met others, and pretty soon a group of a dozen or so met for a picnic in Bear Valley around Memorial Day. Brimming with excitement, they decided to release an issue during Western Weekend, just a week or so away.

Despite the short deadline, they managed to print a few thousand copies of what they called the West Marin Pilot, which they distributed during the parade. In the edition, the founders laid out their mission: to report on important issues, frame stories “within their historical context” and to “remain beholden to readers,” among other goals. 

Around the same time, there was a local campaign organized for people to drop their copies of the Light on the doorstep of Mr. Plotkin’s offices as a gesture of protest.

“I was always very jealous of [Mr. Mitchell’s] readers because they were so engaged,” Mr. Hack told the Light recently. “I realized, yes, this is real. They are really not being served, as a community of readers.” (He disputed old assertions that he was spurred by resentment of failed negotiations over Mr. Plotkin’s attempt to purchase the Navigator.) 

The West Marin Citizen reported on hard news and employed three reporters, along with former Light editor Jim Kravets, who said in a 2011 interview that Mr. Hack gave him wide editorial freedom for most of his tenure. 

“It was thrilling and scary,” Mr. Kravets told the Light that year. “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.”

Mr. Hack’s newspapering philosophy, however, was to first and foremost print as many pictures of community events as possible, with the names spelled correctly. Many thought the new paper wouldn’t last more than a year. 

In the fall of 2007, Ms. Petersen, who formerly ran a children’s clothing business in Puerto Rico, took on ad sales and general office management.

From around that time onward, Ms. Elliott said, she was in charge of the Light’s editorial content; both women said they largely stayed out of the controversies between the two papers, instead focusing on their weekly tasks.

 In 2010, while the Marin Media Institute negotiated a purchase with Mr. Plotkin, it also sought to purchase the Citizen. After lengthy talks, its offers were turned down. But perceptions that the institute was trying to force a takeover and liquidation of the Citizen through Mr. Hack’s personal bankruptcy proceedings spurred a special edition of the Citizen and ongoing suspicions over the Light.

Soon after, for what he said were personal reasons, Mr. Hack gave up the paper, gifting it to Ms. Petersen. (Both he and Mr. Kravets, however, have continued to help intermittently since 2010.)

With the latest ownership transfer comes an expectation that, to some extent, the Light will carry on something of the Citizen’s spirit. Steve Costa, a co-owner of Point Reyes Books, called the sale bittersweet. As an advertiser, he will save thousands of dollars, but he also valued what the Citizen provided and hopes some of that will continue. “The Citizen came about at a time in which we need it, and I think this is a time in which Linda moves on and a time for our getting behind one newspaper and making certain that it becomes as sustainable and as community serving as possible,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, around 1:30 p.m., Ms. Elliott visited the office of the West Marin Citizen, trying to figure out how to print the contract that would commit Ms. Petersen to sell the paper. The two chatted about the stresses of Tuesdays, the day before the weekly deadline, as Ms. Elliott’s son chanted “Baby kabonga face!” for no apparent reason and Ms. Petersen’s dog, Eli, barked at a leaf blower outside.

A few minutes later, they signed a freshly printed contract. “Okay, that’s it,” Ms. Petersen said, then she hugged Ms. Elliott. “We did it. What all the men couldn’t do, we did it!”