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Quaint Carmel Paper Takes a Prickly Turn

Under new owners, the Pine Cone runs critical and investigative pieces.

September 04, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

CARMEL — The hometown paper in this bit of paradise perched over the Pacific Ocean is called the Pine Cone. If it sounds quaint and cuddly, that's exactly what it was for decades -- its pages filled with kids' sports scores, society doings and low-wattage crime stories that occasionally ended up on late night TV as "news from Mayberry" items.

Then a few years back a couple of refugees from Southern California TV news bought the little weekly throwaway for $960,000. They have transformed it with a biting, contrarian editorial page and investigative reports that have gone after everyone from the local water board to big landowners.

"60 Minutes" sent a camera crew to Carmel after the Pine Cone disclosed how easy it was to commit voter fraud by registering a fake person called Sandra I. Claus.

True, the paper, which has a pine bough on its nameplate, still features oddities, such as the front-page story this month about the cop who called for backup when he saw 37 bodies lying in a graveyard.

"Good grief, I thought it was Jonestown," the cop said, referring to the mass suicide in Guyana nearly 25 years ago.. It turned out that the bodies were very much alive. They had paid $800 each to participate in a personal growth seminar that required them to lie on graves and contemplate the state of their lives.

But under the stewardship of Kirstie Wilde, 53, a onetime anchorwoman in Los Angeles, and her husband, Paul Miller, 49, a former NBC bureau chief in Tel Aviv, the Carmel Pine Cone has become much more than something for out-of-towners to read over beers at Clint Eastwood's former restaurant, the Hog's Breath Inn. It has become a "must read," along with the mainstream Monterey County Herald, for anybody who wants to know where the political bodies are buried, or soon will be, on the Monterey Peninsula.

Just last week, the Pine Cone made perhaps its biggest splash ever when its interview with Eastwood, who refused to endorse the recalling of Gov. Gray Davis and warned Arnold Schwarzenegger to be careful what he wishes for, was picked up by national news outlets. The Pine Cone Web site got 15,000 hits in two days, Miller said.

Not everyone likes the change that's come over the once-quirky, 88-year-old newspaper -- particularly those on the receiving end of its sharp tongue.

"Paul Miller has been on an almost holy mission to do us in," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, which Miller thinks has too much power over people's lives.

Asked if the commission considers the Pine Cone its most hostile critic, another official said, "they are certainly one of them." That's quite a statement, considering that the paper prints only 23,000 copies, which disappear quickly on Fridays.

"Paul Miller is a very opinionated gentleman. He always has been," said Fran Farina, acting general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, another frequent target. "I don't think he's a fan of government."

Miller said 90% of the people in town applaud the changes in the paper. Wilde said John Beard, her old TV anchor desk mate in L.A., tells her "you've got it made." What they don't understand, she said, is that running a newspaper, particularly one that was losing money when they bought it, is a daily high-wire act, especially for people who knew nothing about the business side of journalism beyond cashing their paychecks.

They have also learned that the pay in small-town newspapering can't match what they used to earn in TV news.

There are rewards, however.

Miller said he didn't feel he was "missing out on anything" by devoting himself to community news gathering rather than hopping a plane bound for the latest international hot spot.

"The stories are interesting," he said. "The journalism is just as rewarding."

It's something of a cliche in journalism to dream of running your own small-town newspaper. But it wasn't much on their minds when Miller and Wilde decided to give up outsize careers in television news and move north more than a decade ago. All they were looking for was a safe place to raise their three children. North of Carmel, Pacific Grove, which Wilde has described as "Iowa with a beach," fit the bill.

Wilde, an energetic woman given to saying exactly what she thinks, had been an anchorwoman in Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; San Diego; and Los Angeles.

Miller said his wife had nothing in common with airhead TV anchors of myth and legend.

"She's a great reporter," he said. "You don't want her investigating you."

He is, of course, biased. All she will say is: "The intellectual level of an anchorwoman is inversely proportional to her looks. I didn't get jobs because of my looks."

If anything, Miller's career was even more meteoric. He worked for Walter Cronkite in New York, then traveled to the Middle East, where he guided NBC's coverage of the war in Lebanon. Returning to the U.S. and KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Burbank, he met and married Wilde in 1986.

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