‘It was up to the Ark staff to help the public know’
September 8, 2015
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
When it comes to practicing journalism, Kevin Hessel is a purist.
Serving the Northern California communities of Tiburon, Belvedere and Strawberry, he keeps the news in print, and his eye on local government.
“The Ark tries to be the journalism we went to school for,” said Hessel, The Ark’s editor.
The weekly Ark made its mark on the National Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest, this year taking home four first place awards including a top prize for best public notice journalism and an award for general excellence.
Reporter Deirdre McCrohan’s public notice journalism award was for an article she wrote after reviewing a preliminary agenda, where she had noticed that a local government council planned to vote on a $300,000 subsidy to fund new school buses at an upcoming meeting without holding a public hearing first.
The NNA contest judge wrote: “Deirdre McCrohan’s persistence got in the way of government officials hoping to ram a measure through without public input. The issue was never made public with a notice; it was up to the Ark staff to help the public know.”
And this praise suits Hessel just fine.
He values The Ark’s role as a watchdog, and sees it as the newspaper’s No. 1 mission.
“The council would have voted on the expenditure without public input—without letting the community know,” Hessel said. “The meetings are on Monday nights. Our paper comes out on Tuesdays. If we hadn’t caught it, we would not have reported it in a timely way.”
The Ark has a website and a bare-bones social media presence, but still lingering in the days before the digital media boom, the newspaper serves up its news in print.
Now, Hessel is not against social media and online publishing. He was an early adopter, and in an earlier job at the Marin (CA) Independent, he thought he’d be heading down the digital path along with other newspaper publishers and editors.
The population in his coverage area is about 10,000, and the newspaper has 2,300 print subscribers.
“Plus, the pass-along copies create a readership of about 6,000 people,” he said. “Readership is so good here, there is not a lot of motivation to move to the Web.”
Hessel digitizes The Ark for the printer and in a format that can be posted online, but he’s not motivated to add the tools it would take to create an online app, which might require an extra employee.
He currently employs eight fulltime staff and a slew of freelance writers who cover a variety of beats, including youth sports, the arts and the environment. Hessel, along with two reporters, and an assistant editor, do the heavy lifting on local government coverage. A production manager, business and marketing manager, ad director, sales rep, accounts manager and office manager do the rest.
Members of the Belvedere and Tiburon community started The Ark in 1972 as an alternative to the existing newspaper—The Ebb Tide, which is no longer in circulation.
After struggling along for five years, The Ark was about to sink, until James B. McClatchy bought it and saved it from bankruptcy.
The newspaper changed hands in 1987 when two employees teamed up with a third partner and bought it from McClatchy. It was sold to Art and Alison Kern, who own the newspaper today.
“The owners live in the community, but they are not active in the newspaper,” Hessel said.
Hessel and a management team drive the newspaper’s vision. The owners keep their eyes on the bottom line.
“We meet with them regularly and consult with them,” Hessel said.
Hessel was born in Washington, but moved to Southern California as a child and grew up there. His mother wrote for community newspapers, but he grew up loving sports.
An injury changed his point of view.
“I had to have surgery and after that, there was no more playing sports,” he said. “I took a newspaper class and found I loved writing.”
In high school he won a second-place prize in a Los Angeles Times writing contest, and that fueled his fire and locked in a decision to pursue journalism.
At Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Hessel spent two years studying journalism and writing for The Lariat, the school’s student newspaper. He finished his education at San Francisco State University in 2000 with a degree in journalism.
Along the way he learned to love editing and page design more than reporting.
“I don’t have the personality to be a good reporter and I have never been good at establishing the direct rapport with people that reporters need to get stories,” he said.
Hessel’s first job out of college lasted nearly 12 years. At the Marin Independent Journal, a 30,000 circulation daily, he was assistant production editor, design chief and online/social media editor, a job that was perfect for his personality.
But as editor of The Ark, where he has worked for more than four years, he has been forced out of his comfort zone, regularly interacting with public officials instead of staying behind the scenes.
It was a challenge that is paying off.
In addition to learning to hold public officials accountable for their actions, Hessel has learned to hire reporters who are comfortable one-on-one with their sources.
He recently hired a new reporter with little experience but great tenacity.
“She bowled us over in the interview,” he said. “We look for people who can come in with a big personality and not shy away from asking the tough questions.”
When Hessel first arrived at The Ark, the newspaper focused on features and softer news. But he changed that and started hitting the hard news beat.
“Some people found our perspective to be negative, and it was not received well at first,” he said.
Today, the newspaper, which strikes a balance between hard reporting and softer fare, is a popular element of the Belvedere-Tiburon culture, well-read and received in an affluent community of corporate chief executive officers, finance executives and some celebrities.
Tiburon and Belvedere are perched on the end of the Tiburon Peninsula that stretches south into the San Francisco Bay. The area is home to a variety of local small businesses, restaurants and shops and is a favorite destination for tourists.
The Ark newspaper was named for a colorful piece of local history according to Hessel.
Starting in the late 1800s, residents of San Francisco lived on houseboats out in the Belvedere Cove during the summer months. But in 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake left many people homeless and they moved onto their floating homes permanently and became known as “ark dwellers.”
Over time their population grew until they caused environmental concerns and navigational hazards, prompting officials to create laws regulating the use of the bay and forcing the arks to dock permanently or move onto land.
Today, the arks still exist and are woven into the historical and cultural fabric of the area.
The area remains geographically isolated, and Hessel believes that plays perfectly into his and the owners’ desire to keep The Ark a mostly print-only newspaper.
“Our peninsula is geographically isolated, an enclave of affluent, accomplished, informed and active citizens who care deeply about the preservation of the community and its small-town values,” he said. “The local businesses still see the value of the local newspaper to reach their narrow target audience. Combine that with limited competition as the regional dailies scale back their depth of coverage in our area, and we’ve preserved the healthly environment in which traditional newspapering has thrived.”
Name of Publication: The Ark.
How long have you been editor of The Ark? A little more than four years.
What is its circulation? 2,358 as of Aug. 12.
What is its publication schedule? Tuesday rack sales, with Wednesday USPS home delivery.
Does your newspaper have a personal mission statement or motto? If so, what is it? I found some hats in the office that say: “If you don’t want to read about it in The Ark, don’t do it.” On rougher days, that can feel about right. But our primary mission is classic community journalism. The fistfight on Main Street is more important to our readers than a war overseas. We seek to inform and provoke discussion and civic participation through accountability journalism and a deep focus on community life—from government to schools, business to the arts, crime to personal triumph.
How many people are employed at The Ark? Eight staff: The executive editor, assistant/special sections editor, two reporters and a production manager/graphics editor, as well as our director of business and advertising, an advertising sales rep and our accounts manager. (Our two owner-publishers are hands off and unpaid.)
Discuss briefly your stable of freelancers. Where do you find them and how do they benefit your newspaper? We have about 20 freelancers, many of whom are longtime locals, some at the top of their fields who just wanted to be a part of their community paper and found a niche. There is a lover of fine and performing arts, a master gardener, a National Geographic travel writer, a former Genentech scientist and green-energy expert, a former governor of the Federal Reserve Board, the recently passed founder of The Field Poll. Others are professional freelancers who also contribute to other Bay Area publications. Together they provide beat coverage of sorts—youth and schools, the environment, light business features and arts reviews—as well as regular local columns, feature stories and photography.
What is the most rewarding aspect of editing a weekly newspaper? I tell new writers that we get to do the journalism we all went to school for. Community weeklies have the greatest opportunity to encourage discussion, civic participation and activism in ways that give readers real power to shape their own communities on the issues that have the most direct impact on their own lives. We know we can’t be first, so we strive to be the best, investing our time into complete and rich representative reporting that reflects the voices of the community. It’s a bit romantic, but the reward is the journalism. If our readers feel more informed, more connected and more inspired by reading The Ark, it’s a been good week.
What are your biggest challenges? To get a little Rumsfeldian, it’s the unknown unknowns. There are incredible stories to tell in every community, but finding them all? We’re already making tough choices every day about where we devote our resources to what we know. It’s the things we don’t know about, the things we may be missing, that keep me awake at night.
What are your top goals for 2015-2016? Part of it will be internal. I hope to create thorough house stylebook that also includes some local history with the entries, as well as a design style guide. We’ll be looking at ways to go online efficiently with the existing staffing, considering options like a standalone smartphone and tablet app. As for content, I’d like to further expand and centralize our community listings—plus a few other ideas I dare not announce for the first time here and scare my staff.
What are your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristics? Primarily that we’ve stuck with traditional, print-only coverage that works to take the greatest advantage of a weekly schedule. We try to offer deep, full-context reporting and issues pieces even as the world around us insists the demand is for faster, shorter, now-now-now hits to meet busier lifestyles and shorter attention spans amid shrinking newsrooms.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in the communities it serves? Part heartbeat, part central nervous system, part conscience—the best reflection of the goals, values and interests of the community.
Discuss your views regarding being a print-only newspaper? Why does this continue to work for you? In many ways, it’s the luck of the draw. Our peninsula is geographically isolated, an enclave of affluent, accomplished, informed and active citizens who care deeply about the preservation of the community and its small-town values, and a seemingly endless number of volunteers who are dedicated to giving back to the community and making it better. Meanwhile, all the local businesses still see the value of the local newspaper to reach their narrow target audience. Combine that with limited competition as the regional dailies scale back their depth of coverage in our area, and we’ve preserved the healthy environment in which traditional newspapering has thrived.
What is one thing you will never change? When I first started here, a reader told me, “You’re not The New York Times.” I immediately thought of those anecdotes in which an athlete hangs critical news coverage on the inside of his or her locker to serve as motivation, to work even harder every day to be better. No, we’re not The New York Times, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to put our all into every issue, to set a high bar for editorial standards and then try to reach it—or reach over it—every week. We have a duty to our community, and I will always give 100 percent.