The last half-decade has not been kind to local mainstream journalism, but the recent media-quake in Las Vegas stands out as a potential turning point.
The Review-Journal announced it would create two new editorships—one presiding over news and business and the other over sports and features—and thus cut loose its managing editor, city editor, art director, sports editor, features editor and business editor; it also laid off its editorial page editor. Those who got their walking papers can apply for the new posts, but sources at the newspaper say it would be a gamble: If the laid-off editors don’t get the new job, they would sacrifice part of their severance.
Meanwhile, Jon Ralston and his Face to Face executive producer Dana Gentry left the Las Vegas Sun. Gentry quit when the Sun said she no longer could report on a lawsuit against Aspen Financial’s Jeff Guinn, who’s accused of fraud and whose attorney wants her personal financial information in connection with the case. Shortly thereafter, Ralston announced his departure. He’s starting his own politics website while continuing his TV show on Jim Rogers’ stations.
Two keys to understanding how little we know about this are that journalists are gossips, so confirming anything is hard, and that newspapers are bad at reporting on themselves.
The R-J’s moves may turn out to be more significant and merit more attention here. R-J publisher Sherm Frederick and editor Tom Mitchell left those jobs late in 2010. That they did so just after Sen. Harry Reid’s re-election, which they tried mightily to stop, struck many as no coincidence. Their successors, publisher Bob Brown and editor Michael Hengel, haven’t turned the R-J upside down. Until, perhaps, now.
These changes reflect economics and perhaps ideology. The R-J can have two people do the work of six, save money, increase its almighty profits and show its faith in the Ayn Rand ethos its editorial page espouses. Those now condemning the mass layoff as inhumane may be right, but they also may forget the R-J’s long record of treating many of its employees as interchangeable parts at best while editorializing about the virtues of unadulterated capitalism.
Or new blood could produce an invigorated approach to covering the community. The R-J has seemed less nimble at coming to grips with the digital age than other publications around the country (although, to be fair, it’s been nimbler than some). Also, there’s no denying the R-J has had credibility issues due to its editorial views and the question of whether they affected news coverage. Not that these editors necessarily caused the problem. But if they were part of the problem, a different approach to news coverage may result.
Ralston’s move similarly may say something about journalism’s evolution. While writing his political column for the R-J for more than a decade, he began a private newsletter, The Ralston Report. Coming to the Sun meant starting his TV show on a now-defunct cable news channel and now for Channel 3 and its partners. So it isn’t as though Ralston has viewed daily newspapers as his sole or even his most important outlet for a long time. And he seems unlikely to leave the local media scene. His departure is a loss to the Sun, but the paper still has Nevada’s best day-to-day political reporter, Anjeanette Damon. The question is whether the Sun’s audience is now mainly on Twitter or Facebook, or whatever the Next Big Thing may be.
That may be where the R-J is headed, too. The Sun long since doubled down on putting its resources into the Web. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. once dared suggest his newspaper might not always appear in print. Venerable newspapers such as Denver’s Rocky Mountain News have disappeared. The New Orleans Times-Picayune recently cut its print publication to thrice weekly.
None of this means the print versions of the R-J or Sun will disappear. But it does mean our news sources are changing, and reminds us of how often we in Las Vegas really don’t know what we need to know about what goes on in this community. Sometimes that’s because our newspapers lack either the wherewithal or the will to tell us. But just as often it’s because we don’t want to know. The industry follows the consumer; if our city’s dailies further atrophy, the fault may lie in ourselves.