Students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism bristled after receiving the following from Robert Plotkin, a 2003 graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and owner/editor of the Point Reyes Light. Plotkin bought the PRL from the respected Dave Mitchell last November and was coming to the school “to interview for interns who intend on becoming the next Orwell, Kapuscinski or Didion”:

In the last 20 years, family owned newspapers have been gobbled by Media conglomerates, which have fired reporters and editors in order to attain piggish profit margins. Journalists are forced to report two stories from the desk rather than one from the field. Wire stories fill the papers – and circulation drops. In response to declining readership, newspapers fire more reporters and further diminish their product, leading to further loss in readership. It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by a revolution in journalistic quality. To that end, I have purchased the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Point Reyes Light, a paper that is already considered the best small newspaper in the country. But I am in the process of selecting the Magnificent Seven; five literary journalists and two Magnum quality photojournalists that will be the revolutionary vanguard of editorial quality. Every scene piece will be of Talk Of The Town quality. Every story dense with information will be written with the sophistication and wit of the Economist. Every photograph will capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called, “The decisive moment.” We will serve as a model of what a newspaper can be, so that others may learn from our example.

So far, nothing intolerably offensive. Delusional, certainly, but otherwise harmless. Then it continues..

In the past ten days, I have lectured and recruited at the finest journalism schools in the country: NYU, Columbia, Medill, Missouri and now I am coming to Berkeley. Because the Point Reyes Light is famously insolvent, the internships are full-time and unpaid. But there is a decent chance that at least one paid position will be available at the conclusion of the internship. Let the meritocratic cream rise to the top.

One student jokingly called for a boycott of Plotkin’s recruitment visit the following day. To my knowledge, nobody went to meet him. The issue? Not his youth, not his credentials from a rival school, not even his legal scrap with the beloved Mitchell (who is, after all, beloved only in the relatively small circle comprising Point Reyes residents and older Bay Area journalists, and who probably barely nudges the Richter at the journalism school). Rather, it was trifecta of calling for New Yorker-quality articles and Magnum-quality photos, having the audacity to ask for them for free, and then—icing—to use so exhausted a cliche as the “cream = merit” metaphor in an anemic attempt to whip potential interns into competition for a paying position at his reportedly much-diminished newspaper.

What I have to say to Mr. Plotkin: If you truly believe, as you profess to, in the need for a revolution in American journalism, you might start with the less-than-revolutionary step of paying your interns from the get go. [NOTE: According to Yahoo! Real Estate, Point Reyes Station has a cost of living index of 261.7, more than twice the national average of 99.52.] Any graduate of Columbia should well understand what an insidious collusion between journalism schools and media organizations the unpaid internship is, and should also understand the frustration of working in an industry that increasingly requires its new members to suffer multiple rounds of the internship gauntlet before landing an actual job. A master’s degree in journalism from Berkeley costs over $20,000, not including incidentals like rent. We may be fools for getting the degree in the first place, but we are, most of us, well meaning fools. We want to do the good work. We also want to eat.

But perhaps Mr. Plotkin just can’t sympathize. If he has enough to purchase an newspaper at the age of 35, then he probably doesn’t have to worry about loan repayment. On the other hand, he probably also has enough to kick us students of the “finest journalism schools” a hundred bucks a week to cover the cost of commuting to his pretty little community so we can supply him with his Pulitzer-worthy material.

[NOTE: This post was previously published several days ago. By stroke of idiocy on the part of the owner of this site, the original was deleted, along with two comments—one that claimed to be from a sympathetic staffer at the Point Reyes Light and one from a former staffer challenging Plotkin's claims of the newspaper's "famous" insolvency, with additional revelation that its interns were, once upon a time, paid. I've republished the post in its entirety, minus a little photo of Plotkin, and humbly invite those who commented on it to comment again. Apologies for the mix-up.]

7 Comments

  1. Susan Hugo on May 2nd, 2006
    1

    A requirement for buying an independent newspaper is money and ego. It has, and always has been that way. Many years ago, in my naïve beginnings in publishing, I too was wooed into a sense of bravado when asked by a former owner of the Point Reyes Light (not Mitchell) if I was interested in purchasing the paper. I took all the financial information to an established accountant and investment consultant in SF. His response, “take your money and go to Reno, you’ll have better odds.” Employing him was the best investment I ever made. My wallet was obviously not big enough, or maybe my ego wasn’t big enough to ignore that fact.

    Having said that, as a former employee of the Point Reyes Light, I can attest to its clout on a resume. So even if Plotkin is an absolute lunatic, which he is proving on a weekly basis, a temporary unpaid position may be worth more than one might think. I, personally, would not work for the man, but I am old enough and have paid my dues enough not to have to. Thank God.

  2. K. LeMieux on May 2nd, 2006
    2

    Please note that prior to Plotkin’s ownership, The Light traditionally paid interns $125 (and more recently $135) per week if they worked at the paper at least three days a week. In addition, The Light paid for the gasoline they used while driving around on the job. The “famously insolvent” Point Reyes Light throughout in the last half of Cathy’s and Dave’s ownership was in the black; it was in the black all through the 1990s; lost $30,000 in 2004; was operating in the black and was in the black for the year when Robert bought it in November 2005.

  3. Ch-infamous » Blog Archive » Not the only ungrateful punk out there on June 3rd, 2006
    3

    [...] Kamenetz’s column is better researched, and probably more thoughtful, than the rant I posted on the same topic a month ago. Curiously, her headline–”Take this Internship and Shove It”–is the same as mine was, minus only the “Right Up Your Ass.” The implication is the same, of course. An “eye for eye” sodomy revenge fantasy that I suppose is as inevitable as it is juvenile. [...]

  4. Joel Hack on June 27th, 2006
    4

    Plotkin is the very kind of guy that a corporate predator would hire to take over a prosperous paper like the PRL and turn it into a corporate profit center.
    Plotkin attempted to buy my newspaper with a no-compete clause and nearly no money. In difficult financial straits, I considered his offer. I chose inside to develop an online version of the 20 year old local community newspaper that humbly delivers small-town news. Plotkin is trumpeting that he is expanding to Bodega Bay. Amazing, a local paper is part of its community from fundraising for victims of local tragedies to building support for community-wide projects. Local papers also build community discussions on local issues.
    Plotkin only takes from the community and adds only Columbia educated interns. The interns return to the Upper West Side at the end of their stint. This guy is one-way in the same way that Wal-Mart is one way.
    And he claims to have studied the ethics of journalism. If he did such a study, he is now assidiously avoiding using those same ethics.

  5. eric on July 1st, 2006
    5

    for the record, josh, at least one student at berkeley’s j-school did, in fact, meet with robert plotkin upon his visit to the j-school. i will not name her, but it should be noted that she even continued corresponding with him via phone following her meeting, as she debated taking the internship. so, as for your claim regarding a boycott of plotkin by the school, just not true.

  6. josh on July 2nd, 2006
    6

    In fact, as I’ve just learned by email, two students from the journalism went to see him about internships. In my defense, in the original post I only said students clamored for a boycott, not that they actually achieved one.

    In view of the rather large number of students who were still hungering for internships by that point, I think the defection of only one or two students still makes a statement.

    Not as good a statement, though.

  7. Dave Mitchell on August 19th, 2006
    7

    Point Reyes Light publisher Robert Israel Plotkin this past week told Marin Judge Jack Sutro that competition from the online Bodega Bay Navigator is “damaging or destroying” the newspaper Plotkin bought in November.

    Particularly upsetting Plotkin is the fact that I, former Light publisher David Vokes Mitchell, and former Light cartoonist Kathryn LeMieux have been contributing to The Navigator website.

    The judge on Friday, Aug. 13, barred me from posting my long-time column, Sparsely Sage and Timely, on the website or further helping its owner Joel Hack in any way until a preliminary injunction hearing in October.

    Making his ruling in chambers, the judge rejected arguments that the federal and state constitutions ban prior restraints on publishing, indicating that he was more concerned with protecting Plotkin’s $500,000 investment in The Light.

    Plotkin’s court papers claim that Hack “has caused — and will continue to cause unless enjoined — material injuries to [the] plaintiffs [Plotkin and The Light] in damaging or destroying the newspaper.”

    In selling The Light to Plotkin for $500,000 and various other forms of compensation, I agreed I would not work for another Marin County newspaper. Plotkin in his court papers claimed that since the Navigator website has started covering more West Marin news, I was violating the non-competition agreement.

    Judge Sutro in chambers indicated that the court will need a full hearing to determine if a Sonoma County website can be considered the same as a Marin County newspaper.

    The judge’s order also temporarily bars me from further revealing to Navigator owner Hack what Plotkin in his court papers called the “trade secrets” of covering the West Marin sheriff’s log. Ironically, I had noted in a Nov. 6, 2003, column that The Light’s style of Sheriff’s Calls had been copied from The Evergreen (Colorado) Canyon Courier.

    The Navigator this summer converted from being a weekly newspaper based in the town of Bodega Bay, Sonoma County, to an Internet website, and it is now planning to print only five special editions a year. For eight years, Navigator Publisher Hack and his wife, attorney Kathie Simmons, have covered the Sonoma County sheriff’s log, and it would seem to me that Joel and Kathie don’t need my coaching to cover a sheriff’s log.

    The Navigator’s traditional style of covering the sheriff’s log is slightly different from my traditional style, but so is The Light’s current style. The Light’s Sheriff’s Calls are now being written by Plotkin’s wife Lys, who in a declaration to the court acknowledged she started out using my style but “which I have subsequently altered in practice slightly.”

    In his motion for an injunction, Plotkin says that last November, i imparted to him a “very valuable trade secret based on a special relationship with the Point Reyes Station Sheriff’s Office and a particular and complicated methodology for deciphering the Sheriff’s Calls, logs, and records, and transcribing them into the format of the newspaper feature.”

    Lys Plotkin, who was also coached by me, further explained, “He showed me how to navigate the complicated abbreviations and penal code citations in the briefing log of the sheriff’s station. The briefing log consists of condensed incident reports using abbreviations, and occasionally require the assistance of a deputy or lieutenant to clarify.”

    Responding to their written comments, I told the press after the hearing, “I can’t fathom how I’m imparting trade secrets when I advise reporters to ask deputies when they have questions or when I tell them numbers of various sections of the state penal code.”

    Of course, I’m disappointed in Judge Sutro’s issuing a temporary restraining order against the online Navigator, its owner Hack, and me. However, I expect all of us will ultimately prevail in the upcoming hearings.

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