Paul Miller, a former network news producer, runs the Carmel Pine Cone from… (Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles…)
PACIFIC GROVE, CALIF. — On Aug. 16, the front page of the Carmel Pine Cone, a serious but cheeky paper that covers the Monterey Peninsula, featured its usual lively mix of news: a photo package about the annual car extravaganza known as the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, plus stories about Carmel's mounting municipal legal bills, the region's eternal struggle over water and a stymied airport runway construction project.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 04, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Carmel newspaper: In the Sept. 3 Section A, the caption for a photo with a column about the Carmel Pine Cone newspaper said that Publisher Paul Miller runs the weekly from his home. The paper's offices are in a converted house; Miller lives elsewhere.
But it was the headline over a photo of a huge Monterey pine tree that had fallen onto a Toyota Prius during morning rush hour that caused a tempest: "Tree Smashes Prius on Highway 68 -- but at least it wasn't a Bentley."
Paul Miller, 59, the former CBS and NBC network news producer who has owned and edited the weekly Pine Cone since 1997, composed the headline. "I said, 'Oh my God, a tree fell on a car during Concours week, with all those Bugattis?' Sure, it was flippant. Because no one was hurt, it seemed like a perfectly fine joke."
The Toyota's driver, Arden Eaton, 58, a well-known local disc jockey, was not amused. "People have been coming up to me and saying, 'Oh my God, I heard about your accident, glad you're alive, and isn't Paul Miller a bleep?' " said Eaton, who has demanded an apology.
Miller, who must be admired for his ability to milk a controversy, ran letters from angry Prius owners the next week and penned a brief, "Sorry if anyone was offended" non-apology. A week after that, he printed letters from readers defending the headline and wrote a 900-word editorial comparing the impulse behind the Prius headline with the all-too human tendency to laugh when someone slips on a banana peel. The dust-up, he insisted, was "indisputably trivial."
"Come on, people," wrote Miller. "Have a brain."
Whether the issue is news judgment or taste, Miller, who cut his journalistic teeth on network foreign desks, is supremely self-confident. Pressured at least "a hundred times a year" to kill or change stories, he said, he rarely capitulates. "Lots of times people are furious," he said, "and they stay mad for a long time."
The Pine Cone, founded in 1918, has become a flourishing local operation -- independent, profitable and known for its blend of hokey local features and aggressive news coverage and advocacy.
The paper has championed a controversial desalination plant for the chronically dry region and is a loud voice against what Miller considers government over-regulation and environmentalist intrusions on free enterprise. His combativeness was on display in a recent editorial, "Why You May Die in a Fiery Plane Crash." He blamed a judge and "narcissistic activists" for halting construction of new runway space at Monterey Peninsula Airport.
Despite the harsh language and edgy headlines, the weekly is something of a throwback to a gentler newspaper time. The paper does not update its stories the way newspaper websites do. Its three full-time reporters don't tweet. The paper has posted nothing on its Facebook page since October 2012. Miller is convinced that major metropolitan newspapers could save themselves if they would only follow his lead and stop trying to monetize their websites.
Leafing through a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle at his desk in the Pacific Grove house that is the Pine Cone headquarters, Miller said, "This is something people have done for 200 years, very happily. Now we are told the entire thing is dead, it cannot exist like this anymore, it has to be a click-happy, comment-happy, Twitter-happy experience. I say no. I'm doing the anti-Internet model."
Miller is lucky to have found a great formula for his weekly, said Alan Mutter, a media analyst and former newspaperman, but it could never work for a large metropolitan newspaper.
"A paper like the Pine Cone is in the absolute sweet spot of the publishing business because it's creating unique and valuable content about a fairly isolated community where hardly anybody else is doing much coverage," Mutter said. "The idea that all the information that anybody who lives in Los Angeles could or should want could be contained in the four corners of a PDF is preposterous in the digital era."
Plus, said Mutter, small businesses that could never afford display ads in a metropolitan newspaper flock to a paper like the Pine Cone.
Every Thursday evening, after the Pine Cone's print edition has gone to bed, Miller sends an entertaining email highlighting the week's effort to about 12,000 subscribers. The email has PDF links to the paper. The PDF is an identical copy of the print edition, with full color ads that replicate the print edition. It is static, easy on the eyes and feels pretty much like reading an electronic version of the newspaper, which has a fat real estate section.