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Bringing Flair to the Point Reyes Light

The upstart publisher of the Pulitzer-winning weekly has angered some readers with his brand of journalism.

May 28, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. — Robert Plotkin, the upstart newspaper publisher in this isolated hub of organic farmers, bistro owners and wealthy Bay Area refugees, is on the move, his journalistic campaign in overdrive.

He seems to be everywhere at once -- snapping news photographs, reporting stories, schmoozing with subscribers and courting advertisers -- as he whisks about west Marin County in his racy black BMW.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Point Reyes Light: An article in Sunday's California section about the change of ownership at the Point Reyes Light newspaper misspelled the last name of reporter Ashley Harrell as Herrell.

"Gimme a hug," Plotkin says with a politician's polish, opening his arms to the grumpy, tattooed proprietress at the Pine Cone diner, where he holds court.

Last fall, when he bought the Pulitzer Prize-winning Point Reyes Light, the 36-year-old former freelance journalist and Monterey County prosecutor emerged as the biggest story in this no-stoplight town near the scenic national park and the newspaper's namesake lighthouse.

Brash and ambitious, resembling comedian Jerry Seinfeld in hip, retro clothes, the self-styled onetime "Bolinas-based foreign correspondent" fashions himself as a new breed of "press lord" taking on profit-driven journalism. He is, he boasts, an unapologetic "P.T. Barnum" luring new writing talent to town and a media Michelangelo creating the "Sistine Chapel of journalism."

From his very first issue, Plotkin promised a thoughtful, more literary Light. But he has angered some readers by injecting what they see as sensationalist, tabloid-style journalism into a weekly paper that had long fashioned itself as a humble deliverer of small-town news.

The Christmas edition featured a haunting front-page mug shot of an accused rapist and a lengthy article about the crime that many called ill-timed for a holiday issue. Plotkin later explained that he was reading Truman Capote's nonfiction crime bestseller "In Cold Blood" at the time.

During recent rains, the Light published a headline -- "Chinese Water Torture Will Intensify" -- that some readers found insensitive.

Others complain that Plotkin forsakes local news for his own preaching on world and national issues, such as a column in which he argued that China needs a free press. He also allows less room for letters to the editor -- a sore point for a readership that relies on the Light as a community bulletin board.

Plotkin, a San Diego native with a master's degree in journalism from New York's Columbia University, admits to some beginner's mistakes.

"I should have been more sensitive; it was the Christmas edition," he said of the rape article. "But I reject the pure xenophobia, the complaints that said, 'Why write about this? A drifter who raped a tourist. She wasn't even a local!' "

Plotkin also has drawn attention for his bitter public feud with the Light's former owner and publisher, David Mitchell, 62, one of the town's most well-known personalities. Plotkin charges that Mitchell tried to strangle him and run over him with his car.

Mitchell, whose Light won journalism's top award in 1979 for a series on Synanon, the drug rehab center-turned-cult, says Plotkin's claims are overblown.

Still, recently the pair agreed in Marin County Superior Court to a three-year restraining order that would keep Mitchell away from the new publisher and his family, as well as the Light offices where Mitchell had labored for three decades and was still working as a consultant.

Mitchell has threatened to sue Plotkin for breaking the terms of the Light's sale and calling him a manic-depressive in a column.

"The symphony is just tuning up," Mitchell said. "What the judge has said is that a family of skunks has moved into west Marin County and has told me to stay away from them. And I say, 'Your Honor, I'm not messing with any skunks.' "

Plotkin says he wants to concentrate on running his newspaper. The new Light replaced Mitchell's 100-watt news bulb with a journalistic floodlight. He wants to emulate the thoughtfulness of the New York Review of Books, the serendipity of the New Yorker's pithy "Talk of the Town" and the gravitas of Granta, the renowned British literary quarterly.

Plotkin has visited top journalism schools looking for "the best and the brightest" talent willing to venture out to Point Reyes Station (population 1,200), an hour north of San Francisco, for four-month unpaid internships.

His ads seek "literary journalists who plan on becoming the next Orwell, Kapuscinski or Didion," referring to the late British socialist, an esteemed Polish writer and a dyspeptic California native.

When talking excitedly about his cause, Plotkin mixes metaphors freely.

"The only way to get the right esprit de corps -- the people directed to a higher calling -- is to invite them to join the Round Table and go on a quest for the chalice," he said. "I fashion myself as sort of a Che Guevara. This paper is the Dunkirk of literary journalism. Our backs are against the wall. The Huns are upon us. It's time to fight."

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