Controversial Berkeley paper to cease printing

People who want to read the Berkeley Daily Planet’s steady stream of anti-Israel letters will no longer be able to pick up the paper at newsstands.

The planet announced last week it would cease publishing a print version of its weekly paper and become an online-only publication.

Of several factors cited for the change, the paper’s publisher and editor, Michael and Becky O’Malley, singled out one group for particular blame — “a few misguided zealots who represent themselves as friends of Israel.”

They have “certainly contributed to our advertising problems in some measure,” Becky O’Malley wrote in an open letter to readers Feb. 11.

Jim Sinkinson

However, in a phone interview Feb. 16, she clarified that remark.

“I actually do not want people to blame Berkeley’s Jewish community for our financial difficulties, because it’s not fair,” O’Malley said. “We’re having the same problems as every other paper. … It really is ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ ”

Jim Sinkinson, one of the so-called “zealots” and the head of the group East Bay Citizens for Journalistic Responsibility, said the O’Malleys’ decision was bittersweet for him.

“Our preference would have been that the Planet would have seen fit to stop offending the Jewish community and to focus on creating a healthy viable wholesome community newspaper,” said Sinkinson, an Oakland resident.

Still, he said he was pleased that his efforts to alert Berkeley businesses and advertisers to the Daily Planet’s controversial content finally appeared to be successful.

“I think it is a tribute to the conscious and the moral sensibilities of the merchants of Berkeley that so many have chosen to avoid association with a publication that prints anti-Semitism,” he said.

The O’Malleys purchased the Berkeley Daily Planet in 2003. The paper, which they estimate has about 40,000 readers, offers a near-guarantee that it will publish, in full, any signed letter to the editor, regardless of topic or length.

That policy drew heated criticism in 2006, when the paper published an op-ed titled “Zionist Crimes in Lebanon” by an Iranian student studying in India. Among other charges, the author blamed anti-Semitism over the past 2,500 years on Jewish behavior and Jewish racism.

Since then, an onslaught of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic letters have been printed in the Daily Planet’s pages — leading East Bay Jews to spring into action. Berkeley resident John Gertz started a Web site called DP Watchdog, and people such as Sinkinson and Dan Spitzer of Berkeley informed advertisers about articles and letters the Daily Planet was printing.

“We passionately support free speech. It is hate speech we do not support,” Sinkinson said. “It is within Planet’s right to publish anything they want … We just don’t think it’s good business for merchants to advertise in a publication that offends so many people.”

Becky O’Malley said it’s difficult to quantify how much advertising has been lost due to the efforts of people like Sinkinson. “In a bad economy, people are canceling their advertising for all kinds of reasons,” she said.

Sagging advertising revenue is only one piece of the Daily Planet’s struggles.

In a Feb. 4 article, the publication announced that its payroll company had recently vanished, “leaving behind a trail of unpaid taxes and embezzlement charges,” which could add up to “staggering sums for which we may be held liable.”

The paper will publish a print version through the end of February. From March on, it will rely on its one paid staff writer and a cadre of volunteer writers, editors and videographers who will contribute Web content.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.