Ink Stains

The strange endurance of the Las Vegas Sun

Every morning, I fetch the Las Vegas Review-Journal from my driveway, open it up and read the Las Vegas Sun. It’s a good read, but the amazing thing is that we have the opportunity to read it at all. It has now been five years since the Sun’s 55-year run as its very own bundle of newsprint came to an end and the paper squeezed itself physically, though not institutionally, into the Review-Journal. The slim new Sun that appeared in October 2005 ran 6-10 pages and could have been mistaken by an inattentive reader for a peculiarly designed R-J special section. But the devoted reader could see that the newspaper, having lost much of its body, had saved some portion of its soul: After a difficult downsizing, it retained its own small staff, its own editorial voice, its own banner and fonts and design.

By that time, readers of the Sun had suspected for 15 years that the end was nigh. Beaten in the ad wars by the larger R-J, which had the backing of the national Donrey Media chain (now Stephens Media), the Sun had in July 1990 accepted the crippling salvation of a joint operating agreement with the Review-Journal. Under the agreement, the R-J became the town’s sole morning daily and would handle ad sales and circulation for both newspapers; the Sun, meanwhile, became an afternoon paper in a city with no commuter trains. By 2005, the newspaper’s circulation had fallen to 28,000, compared with the R-J’s 165,000. When the afternoon idea was at last abandoned, Review-Journal publisher Sherm Frederick had a bit of fun with his rival, comparing the Sun’s afternoon editorial voice with the proverbial tree that falls in the forest.

Today, the Sun is in no danger of succeeding or failing without witnesses. Every R-J subscriber is automatically a Sun subscriber, too. But those successes and failures cannot be measured by the usual standards of a newspaper. Comprehensiveness, speed, scoops, range of lifestyle coverage—none of these measures can be seriously applied to a few daily pages produced by a handful of staffers. The 2005 agreement did not simply repackage the papers—it instituted a division of labor. Or at least it should have. The Review-Journal is the Valley’s full-service traditional newspaper. The Sun is …?

The question mark is not intended as an insult. Uncertainty breeds creativity, which has never been the R-J’s institutional strong point. The Sun has had the opportunity over the past five years to rethink traditional newspaper priorities, to reimagine the news story, and to experiment with the mission of print in the Internet age. Exploration, of course, is a long-term business. And like anyone tossed onto open seas, the Sun is still finding its bearings and asking itself the big questions.

How should we be different? It may on occasion be fascinating to read a story in the R-J, flip over to the Sun, and read the same story from a different point of view. In two-newspaper cities, this kind of rival framing of events is an important service to the reader. But when the Sun has only a few pages to work with, it’s fair to ask whether duplicate coverage is the best use of resources. What the Sun can do, and often does, is find the forgotten stories, the stories that don’t really look like news, and tell them so well that we discover the relevance of the seemingly irrelevant. This is a big city, with plenty to say that the R-J leaves unsaid.

What voice should we speak with? Each day, nearly half of the Sun’s pages are filled with stories from The New York Times. This is partly a side effect of economics and staffing. And the Sun does choose interesting stories that one would never find in the R-J’s national pages. But if the Sun’s goal each day is to show its readers a different Las Vegas than the one the R-J shows, where exactly does the Times fit in?

Are we still that falling tree in the forest? The survival of the Sun editorial page is one of the great success stories of the 2005 reshuffling. Today, every coffee-sipping reader hunched over the R-J’s libertarian editorial page can, with a quick rattle of the fish-wrap, switch to the liberal Sun, and vice versa. It’s a unique opportunity to take in dueling editorials for the cost of a single morning paper. Unless you do it for free on the Web.

Who are we, anyway? For a while, the Sun’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, won for an investigative series on Strip construction deaths, seemed to provide the answer: We’re the paper that won the Pulitzer. The Sun had given excellent reporters the time, space and support to do first-rate in-depth work. A wave of layoffs in December, though, did no favors for the Sun’s reputation as a writer’s newspaper. What’s more, the Sun had a parallel answer to the identity question: We are a full-service miniature newspaper—complete with news, sports, comics, and puzzle pages—conveniently located inside your Review-Journal. In a full-size newspaper, the all-things-to-all-people identity and the Pulitzer identity could comfortably coexist, but with a small staff, a limited page-count and no possibility for appropriate section breaks between, say, a feature on juvenile incarceration and the Tuesday Sudoku, the two visions can be contradictory and mutually nullifying.

Isn’t our real future online? On the Web, the Sun gives Las Vegas a gift that most American cities lost long ago: a traditional news-organization counterpart to the dominant daily. In print, though, the Sun is at its best when it strays furthest from its daily-news heritage into the long-form work the R-J often neglects. Unable to tell all the stories, the ink-and-paper Sun can focus on telling some of them really well. Ironically, the old-fashioned page count, rather than the limitlessness of the digital world, may pose the most exciting creative challenge for the Sun.

What do our readers need? What we need, much more than information for information’s sake, are the habits of mind required to think intelligently about our community, to see past conventional wisdom and to interact creatively with the world. Empathy, patience, proportion—these habits are taught, as they have been for a few thousand years, by good storytelling.

Here in Las Vegas, the Sun is in a good position to jump-start the lesson.

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