Stop the Presses?

The shakeup at the Review-Journal raises the question of whether daily newspapers matter anymore

We’re forever quibbling about what Las Vegas needs to be a real city. A pro sports franchise? A stadium? A better university, top-flight medical centers, less suburban sprawl and more urban grit? Maybe a mob museum or a slew of high-rise condos?

But what about an influential, major daily newspaper? As the Las Vegas Review-Journal replaces its longtime publisher and editor, it may be the time to rethink the role of a “newspaper of record”—a term perhaps more antiquated than the notion itself—and consider the value of a comprehensive, objective news source, inasmuch as there is such a thing.

While the R-J isn’t exactly a “paper of record”—publishing all votes, scores and legal notices so that they literally become a public record—it has long been the state’s biggest and most traditional morning daily, positioned to present reliable, straight-up news of the day. Whether the paper has ever fulfilled that role is debatable: Media critics have hounded it as overly conservative and workaday; argued that its out-there libertarian editorial page didn’t contribute to solving city’s challenges over the years; and pointed out that it was its rival, the Las Vegas Sun, that won the state’s first Pulitzer in 2009 after narrowing and deepening its editorial focus.

Still, the R-J has been setting the region’s news agenda since its incarnation in 1909 as the Clark County Review, and has been, if not always a celebrated font of information, at least a reliable source.

That’s been the appeal of any major daily for the last century: to set the framework for debate, to be a city’s center of credible news and to establish a generally accepted version of reality.

But maybe that’s a role that’s disappearing in today’s mediascape—there’s less interest in shared reality. Media outlet after media outlet is showing us that we prefer niche markets, our own tastes and opinions repackaged and returned, our own beliefs confirmed. Like every other type of consumer menu today, news is splintered into endless subgroups: Glenn Beck fans get Glenn Beck’s reality; Stephen Colbert fans get Stephen Colbert’s reality, etc. Most media outlets are no longer primary news-gathering operations—that’s expensive—but rather content cooks. Which would be fine, if this were any product but the one we use to self-govern our society.

In a November Washington Post column, veteran TV newsman Ted Koppel chastised a new generation of media for drowning consumers in this “flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases.”

It’s an irony-saturated moment: Media have become less interested in dissecting complicated issues at precisely the moment when our economic and political problems are the result of some very complicated issues. It’s an absurd circle, and it doesn’t bode well for a system built on government by the people.

Koppel—quoting him adds some irony, as does writing this in a free, ad-driven publication—wrote that media today have the “pervasive ethos that eschews facts in favor of an idealized reality,” a trend, he says, that’s “not good for the republic.”

While it seems both heady and absurd to consider what’s good for the republic and the role of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in one breath, it’s tragically relevant.

We don’t know yet what the new leadership at the R-J will do with the paper. Will they give up the chase for the old model of news? Or renew a commitment to broad-scale, balanced reporting across a major region?

Maybe, as the Las Vegas Sun did, they’ll focus on quality, in-depth reporting instead of trying to cover everything going on in the Valley. Maybe they’ll play to the lowest common entertainment denominator. Or maybe they’ll embrace their political slant and run with it.

“If they make the judgment that appealing more to a partisan base is to their advantage, they are entitled to do that,” says Columbia University journalism professor Richard C. Wald. “What that decision does, though, is leave the field of nonpartisan reporting open to some other entity.”

Or, more likely given the economics of media in Las Vegas, to no one at all. And that should be a public concern in any city, but particularly so in a city as PR-saturated and undereducated as this one.

It sounds a bit Chicken Little, and ignores the flaws of a monolithic news outlet—putting too much faith in one entity to select the framework, and putting all of our eggs in one not-so-great basket. Maybe the civic role of the Fourth Estate can be better fulfilled by a patchwork of outlets rather than by a paper like the R-J.

Ardyth Broadrick Sohn, director of the Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV, says, “A well-informed citizen today might have to check several media before settling on what is truth and what is not. And is that a bad thing? Well, I believe it is only a problem if the citizen does not take the responsibility and time to do so.”

But the idea that people have the time or inclination to consume multiple media sources, then think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of each to sift out the truth in any given story, might be a tad unrealistic. Koppel seems to think the junk-food factor will win this scenario, and that when news media are considered businesses ahead of public trusts, the public loses.

“The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible,” Koppel writes. “Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. … We are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we’re now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.” “Trusted gatekeeper” comes off a little creepy here, but it does beg the final question: Does it even matter to a major city if a paper like the R-J—an organization that pays a lot of people to figure out what’s going on—exists?

Maybe, says Broadrick Sohn. “As long as our citizens are educated enough to understand and balance the ‘slants’ of various media, including traditional media, we might come out of this better than when our readers were passive and took for granted that if a newspaper of record printed something, it must be true, and no further investigation was necessary.”

And yet, one wonders, without something like a paper of record to provide a baseline of objective information, might citizens find themselves in a zero-gravity environment of facts, pseudo facts, interpretation and BS, with nothing to guide them toward the truth?

Here’s to hoping the R-J can rise to the challenge.