Old-school community journalism shows: It's a wonderful 'Light'

Video highlights

Christmas speech by Dave Mitchell

David Mitchell gives bleak report at Christmas dinner. (Windows Media File, 540k)

“Journalists are supposed to have a bias,” Mitchell said. (Windows Media File, 1 MB )

Efforts to save the Light. (Windows Media File, 2.8 MB )

Dave Mitchell

Mitchell has had some dark days along the way. (Windows Media File, 940k)

Park rangers call West Marin residents “fruitcakes.” (Windows Media File, 4.5 MB )

Singing Sheriff's Calls song

The Light’s weekly rundown of the Sheriff’s calls is leavened with Mitchell’s droll wit. Here, Stu Art Chapman performs a song comprised of the best of the Sheriff’s calls. (Windows Media File, 1.2 MB )

(All video and photos by the author. For more information about why the author chose this story, listen to this audio account, in Ogg format.)

I was trying to ask legendary editor/publisher David Mitchell the Big Important Question: how to save the soul of American journalism, but the wind shifted direction and the stench made it impossible to talk.

It’s understandable. Mitchell’s second-story offices of the Point Reyes Light (weekly circulation: 4,100 and rising) are in a converted creamery only a country block from the cattle yards that still supply the good people of Marin County with their curds and whey.

I’d been trying to interview Mitchell about the state of journalism today – because not a day goes by without another thumbsucker being inflicted on us, wailing and gnashing about how the whole profession is headed straight for Satan’s jaws.

I take the thick fragrance of manure that chokes out my question to be a rather literal form of cosmic commentary on the whole subject.


In the fall of 2004, Mitchell’s one true lifelong love, his newspaper, the Point Reyes Light, teetered on the brink of extinction. The San Francisco Weekly did a story – “Can the Light Stay Afloat?” – about how Mitchell had been steadily draining his meager inheritance to run the paper at a loss, a story that was then picked up nationally – it even made Romenesko.

Then, in a scene straight out of the 1946 weepy Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, the good townsfolk of Point Reyes, Bolinas, Tomales, Stinson Beach et al., came together and basically passed the hat and bailed him out.

“Almost every day when people wrote in to renew their paper, someone would say, ‘Here’s an extra twenty bucks.’ We got lots of people who just gave us $100. Even people who didn’t hardly have two nickels to rub together stepped up and gave us $5.

“And then sixteen of them wrote in and said ‘Raise your cover price. Take it up to a dollar. We need the Light because we don’t have any city governments out here. And the Light is providing us with a forum for us to work out civic issues.’ ”

Somewhere, Tribune and Cox and Gannett execs are weeping at the thought of having such a devoted readership – one that not only keeps subscribing, but forms fan clubs devoted to your paper and then demands that you raise your price.

At this point, with the fall circulation reports looming, most circulation managers would settle for just not hemorrhaging readers. Heck, some circulation managers would settle for not having to wear an orange prison jumpsuit for the next couple years.

In 1979, the Light won the Pulitzer Prize for community service for its investigative stories on the violent and paranoid Synanon cult. In 1984, Paul Michael Glaser, still fresh from “Starsky & Hutch,” played Mitchell in a made-for-TV movie (with the embarrassing, Skinemax-like title, “Attack on Fear”) based on the book that Mitchell wrote about the experience.

The Light has been famous ever since for its uncompromising integrity. And to this day, the paper has a reputation for being the training ground for strong, accomplished reporters and editors. [Full disclosure: My wife, Janine Warner, worked at the Light from 1991-92. While working on this story, I stayed at Mitchell’s house and even took a dip in his real-live Marin County hot tub.]

One more thing: Much of what follows seems to be about weekly newspapers, one of the oldest forms of journalism. Hardly appropriate for the Online Journalism Review, with its readership of the bleeding-edge, newest of the new, budding media moguls. But the parallels between this small print outlet and online news are really rather marked. Mitchell and the Light teach a lesson applicable across the spectrum: Readers can find a news outlet so appealing that they will fight to keep it alive.

Let your readers help you

Running a news site on a budget that won’t buy much more than a roast beef sandwich and a couple turns on the PlayStation is an increasingly necessary skill. The Light’s success is a relevant example.

Big papers can just throw dozens of reporters on a story (the New York Times famously called it “flooding the zone,” while the Los Angeles Times more cynically referring to “unleashing the flying monkeys”). But if a small paper commits too much to a single story, the expense can drag it under.

“They [the big papers] would send a couple reporters out into the field, and they would do research for several months, come back and give you a blockbuster story, a main bar that skipped over six pages and three sidebars and all the rest,” Mitchell said. “You’re asking a lot of your readers to go through all that volume of stuff.

“Because we can only cover a little of the story each week, we keep the story in front of our readers week after week. Because of space limitations, we’re also forced to do that.

“So in the long run, this is why issues in weekly communities don’t quickly come and go – the way they do in so many big-city papers.” Even a small operation like the Light can integrate the Web into its operation. And it’s not by putting all its content on the Web and hoping that readers will go there – it’s by using the Web and its readers in a way that allows it to report on the community better than ever.

A recent hot scandal (well, by the Light’s standards) showed how. The story involved a run-in between tourists and park rangers in which pepper spray was deployed.

“One reader – a bus driver – got a hold of me and said if you go to the New York City Citizens’ Review Board, they’ve done a study on the use of pepper spray, and the dangers, when it’s appropriate,” Mitchell said. “They not only tell you what’s safe and what’s good and what will work and when not to do it, they tell you what the law is and what the police training is.

“Another person came to us and ‘Hey, you don’t realize it, but there’s a Web site for the law enforcement ranger association. You oughta check that out.’ ” Mitchell said. “We went to the Web site and we found that rangers who worked out here … were writing in [and] held Marin County residents in absolute contempt.

“The things they would post on their own Web site – they considered us about like Osama bin Laden, or at least we loved him, if not being part of Al Qaeda.”

The Light’s smart, dedicated blending of its oldest resource (its readership) and the newest (the Internet) allowed it to take what would have been just a small story, at most a funny Sheriff’s Call gone wrong, and turn it into a cause that is having a transformative effect on the community. The story has woken readers up to a festering problem in their midst, and they’re starting to take steps to demand real changes. This is almost a textbook example of real beneficial watchdog journalism.

When you stumble onto something that sparks some real reader reaction, then your project starts to become a thing, where people start talking about your coverage and you keep covering it because everybody’s talking about it. Even if you don’t manage to catch lightning in a jar the first time around, Mitchell points out that there have been many instances where the paper started out looking into one story and wound up going in a completely unexpected direction.

“Researching a news story should be done with the same approach as empirical science,” Mitchell said.

“You set out to prove or disprove that hypothesis, and that gives you the starting point. There’s been many times that we started out, this was our working hypothesis and discovered, no, when we really got into the story, it was something else altogether.

“But at least that gave us a way of asking questions. And then we keep hammering at it.”

Live in the community to report on the community

One of Mitchell’s requirements is that his reporters live in the community – which can be a bit of a hardship because it’s so expensive in West Marin. But he insists – because so many stories will come from just listening to people in the check-out aisle, or at the post office. Many journalists for metro papers are covering communities that they don’t live in – and wouldn’t be caught in after dark.

Bob Cauthorn, former vice president of digital media at the San Francisco Chronicle, pointed out that most of the disconnect between newspapers and their audience has happened because “the practice of modern journalism, at anything from a mid-size market up, takes place over the telephone.”

“If you have your ass on the street where it belongs, you don’t need a focus group,” Cauthorn said. “Simple as that.”

This has important implications for the online world, where the name of the game is to try to find a niche in which you can prosper. As broadband penetration spreads, as more and more cities start creating wireless Web zones to attract businesses, national and international news will arrive via the Web.

“National news? Piece of cake. Anywhere, everywhere. I can get Pope coverage pretty much anywhere,” said Mark Potts, one of the founders of the all-local citizen journalist startup, Backfence.com.

Potts and his investors are betting that as local businesses grow more accustomed to the Web, as more people rely on it for information, there will be a crucial gap opening up that they can fill. A site that tells you how to find a good local plumber, what the Little League schedule is, and what the City Council is doing to try to solve the traffic problem could be a real force. Thus, start-up ultra-local sites could find themselves duking it out with weekly newspapers like the Light.

Invest in your coverage

If you’re reading this, you are probably well aware that plunging circulation figures have collided with corporate demands for 20-30 percent profits and produced a very nasty climate. We’ve all seen the cycle at work – revenues are down, so the newsroom staff has to be cut. Resulting in a thinner, watered-down product, a product the public doesn’t like. So numbers go down even further, budgets have to be cut again, thinner product. Rinse, repeat.

Mitchell took the opposite approach. In the 1990s, he noticed that Mexican immigrants were pouring into Marin County and that even tolerant locals were starting to get a little uneasy. So Mitchell cut his own salary to fund an ambitious series of stories about all the other waves of immigration that had washed ashore (in some cases, literally – they were shipwrecked while on their way to somewhere else).

“We still, ten years later, are getting letters to the editor about this. It was significant. It really told where did the old families come from that made this community, why did they come here, how are their lives different from the relatives who stayed in the old country,” Mitchell said.

The Light’s coverage produced the conclusion that the current wave of Mexican immigration was no different from any of the preceding waves. The immigrants were facing the same difficult journey, the same problems assimilating, the same fear and hysteria over a purported “invasion” that would ruin things, and ultimately the same slow process of integrating into the community.

The stories delighted the old guard families who had been in the area for generations and then helped bridge the gap between the established and the newer waves of immigrants. The stories brought people together, taught them about each other. They provided a staging ground for people to begin to talk to each other.

New models for community news?

Cauthorn envisions weeklies embracing a model where they publish their print version to establish which issues are at the forefront. Then the weekly’s Web site becomes the host for the discussion by the community.

“I think this would be really interesting, because then you have a really dynamic model where you’re flowing readers back and forth between print and online,” Cauthorn said. “The kind of thing that we could do be doing in metro markets, but that would require – oh my God – creative thought.

“Newspapers in their glory days – at the height of the power of modern journalism, in the 60s and 70s, when newspapers really made a goddamn difference – their circulation was exploding,” Cauthorn exclaimed. “Trust me, people who were reading about civil rights stories and Vietnam and women’s rights – these people were not reading fluff stories, you know?

“The assumption that if you align yourself with your readers – somehow or another you’re dumbing down – means that you think your readers are dumb. That’s the inescapable result of that logic.

“And it’s wrong!

“Our readers aren’t dumb. Our readers are great.”

Cauthorn finds an important lesson in the readers’ rescue of the Light, one that he hopes the other news publishers will pay attention to. “This tells you in no uncertain terms, with a kind of heat and passion that I wish existed in the normal newsroom, that our public wants us to succeed.

“Our public wants us to survive. Our public wants us to thrive. Our public wants newspapers that matter.

“Our public is leaving us because we are chasing them away with a stick.

“Point Reyes proves it.”

* * *

More from Bob Cauthorn

A complete transcript of David’s interview with Bob Cauthorn about the Light and journalism today.

About David LaFontaine

I've been a journalist since back when cut&paste meant Exacto knives and rubber cement (what can I say - the college newspaper I worked at was a little backward at the time). I've worked at the Arizona Republic and Caracas Daily Journal and currently freelance from Los Angeles.