MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL: Newspaper relaunches as nonprofit

May 26, 2010
Rob Rogers

A consortium of West Marin writers, thinkers and scientists has purchased the Point Reyes Light, hoping to turn the Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly paper into one of a handful of newspapers run by a nonprofit corporation.

"We have created a new model, a hybrid for-profit/nonprofit entity that I think can save a lot of small-town newspapers around the country," said Mark Dowie, a former publisher of Mother Jones magazine and journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley who serves on the governing board of the new corporation.

The Marin Media Institute, a newly created nonprofit, will operate the paper through the auspices of the Point Reyes Light Publishing Co., a low-profit limited liability company chartered under Vermont law.

Members of the Institute board, who include Dowie, anti-globalization activist Jerry Mander and author Norman Solomon, would not disclose the purchase price, but chairman Corey Goodman said he believes his company paid far less than owner Robert Plotkin did to acquire the paper from former publisher David Mitchell in 2005. Plotkin had rejected a previous effort by a group of residents to purchase the paper in 2009.

The paper's new owners say the nonprofit model - which has previously been adopted by Florida's St. Petersburg Times and The Nation magazine - can help the Light survive an economic climate that has devastated newspapers nationwide and led the paper to eliminate its full-time reporting staff in recent years.

About 80 donors provided between $1 and $50,000 to launch the corporation, which has so far raised more than $350,000.

"Nonprofit models are increasingly looked at as possible sustainable models for journalism," said Neil Henry, dean of the University of California at Berkeley's graduate school of journalism. "We are going through a transition period now where news organizations and other entities interested in saving journalism are trying all kinds of different experiments until a new business model emerges."

But the Light's owners also acknowledge that they're hoping to rebuild community support for the paper, which had eroded under Plotkin's ownership. The former publisher could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"We've removed the bogeyman from the paper," Dowie said. "The day we closed the deal, Corey Goodman and I walked up and down the main street of one of our 11 villages and pulled in five advertisers who had been slamming the door in the face of the Point Reyes Light ad sales people because of Plotkin."

A dispute between Plotkin and Bodega Bay Navigator publisher Joel Hack led Hack to launch the West Marin Citizen in 2007. Competition between the two papers - whose offices are within sight of each other - has been fierce, and both publishers previously acknowledged that West Marin's economy could not support both.

"In the long term, it's hard to imagine there being more than one newspaper in West Marin," Goodman said, adding that the new Marin Media Institute had attempted to purchase both newspapers, but that Hack had declined their offer.

In a statement, Citizen editor Jim Kravets said his paper was not yet sure what the sale of the Light meant, "but we're looking forward to finding out and reporting to you what we know. É We're putting all our effort into providing those who rely on us with the information necessary for the enlightened practice of West Marin citizenship."

Both the nonprofit's board and Tess Elliott, who has edited the Light for the past three years, insist there will be a wall of separation between the institute and the paper's editorial content. At the same time, Elliott said the reinvented Light will likely reflect the cosmopolitan world view of its owners.

"I think that because the people on the board are very globally engaged, that will be apparent in a more global perspective we bring to covering local news - but certainly without any abandonment of our sensitivity to local issues and just the details of village life here," Elliott said.

Members of the board say the Marin Media Institute will do more than publish the Light, adding that the nonprofit corporation could pursue grants, train interns and commission long-term investigative stories for both the newspaper and KWMR, West Marin's community radio station.

In addition to the Light, the Marin Media Institute will publish the NorthCoaster, a quarterly journal in the spirit of the Coastal Traveler, a magazine formerly published by the Point Reyes Light. Publisher Plotkin retained control of the Coastal Traveler as a condition of his sale of the Light.

Former publisher David Mitchell, whose well-publicized feud with Plotkin led him to be banned from the offices of the newspaper he led for 27 years, said he was pleased with the sale - though he had reservations about the paper's new financing method.

"If I'd had my druthers, they probably would not have chosen a nonprofit model," Mitchell said. "I always think it's best if you have a strong publisher setting the pace. But obviously they did this for financial reasons, and I can't fault them for that."

Mitchell, who has continued to cover West Marin online in his blog "Sparsely, Sage and Timely," said he's looking forward to seeing his name in print again - in the pages of both of West Marin's newspapers.

"Both the Light and the Citizen have invited me to write for them, and I've said 'I will' to both," Mitchell said. "The Citizen is a much different kind of paper from the Light, and I think it has its own place, for the moment at least. I predict they'll each find their own niche."

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