Behind the Setting Sun

Seven bits of deep background to the proposed newspaper divorce

 Illustration by Jesse Sutherland

Illustration by Jesse Sutherland

Curious about the backstory to the ongoing soap opera involving our two daily newspapers, the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Review-Journal—and what cliffhangers could be looming? You’re not alone. Here are seven things to ponder in connection with the much-publicized potential end of the papers’ joint-operating agreement:

• We tend to forget how twisted the history is. Before it was the Las Vegas Sun, it was the Free Press, a response to then-R-J publisher Don Reynolds locking out the typesetters union. In 1950, Hank Greenspun turned it into the Sun and made his product different: the Sun took on the R-J’s sacred cows, especially Senators Joseph McCarthy and Pat McCarran. But while the two sides blistered one another—Greenspun once accused Reynolds of having “the morals of the head skull crusher at a Chicago slaughterhouse,” while Reynolds called Hank “Vermin Greenscum”—they worked together if they agreed a news story might, say, incite violence or be a blemish on Las Vegas. Both also fought against a reporters’ union. Thus, even amid the feuding, the interests of the R-J and Sun occasionally meshed.

• This battle inspired recollections of the Valley Times, Las Vegas’ third daily paper from 1975 until its closure in 1984. Yet both the Sun and the Times were generally in the red. The latter died, and the former survived only with the JOA. One sign of the Valley’s growth and maturation, for better and worse, can be found in witnessing an unprofitable business trying to survive by seeking help from friends, by shifting money from other, more profitable ventures, and by prayer.

• The giants behind the two papers in their heyday had different spending priorities. Reynolds spent less on news than he could have, but always made sure his presses were top-quality, while Hank Greenspun didn’t. And Greenspun invested outside the Sun—in land and other ventures that diverted some of his attention from his newspaper—while Reynolds concentrated on media.

• The mob may have played a role in the development of the two papers—and not just because Hank Greenspun chose the newspaper over working for Moe Dalitz at the Desert Inn. In 1963, the Sun’s building burned. Tom Hanley, a longtime thug for the mob and the Culinary Union, among others, claimed responsibility after Greenspun insulted him. By then, the R-J had begun to pull away from the Sun, which survived, but the expense involved and the cost in momentum made it nearly impossible to catch up. Did the Sun’s eventual downward spiral begin here?

 Illustration by Jesse Sutherland

Illustration by Jesse Sutherland


• Once upon a time, the surest way to cause indigestion at the R-J was to spread rumors that money from outside Las Vegas was about to invest in the Sun—especially when the Greenspuns’ partner in their cable television company was the then-parent company of the Los Angeles Times, which was rumored to be interested. Sun Publisher Brian Greenspun’s outside connections make that kind of infusion a possibility now, and perhaps a necessity, since the family corporation’s losses during the Great Recession have contributed to the current instability.

• Family squabbles are not uncommon in the media business. With Brian Greenspun squabbling with his three siblings, who are willing to walk away from the paper, it’s worth remembering other dynastic media tragicomedies, such as the one that saw the Chandler family sell the Los Angeles Times, which has had financial problems almost ever since. At The New York Times, Sulzberger family members are taught from birth that The Times comes first, that it’s a family obligation. But they’re the exception, definitely not the rule.

• Diversity matters. When either side bemoans the loss of a “voice,” remember, Las Vegas has many respected media voices besides the R-J and Sun, but they’re mostly weekly or online. A print daily may seem irrelevant in the age of news stories appearing online before they land on paper. But if you think of a newspaper not as a paper, but as a news-gathering organization, you begin to realize that, across the nation, a great deal of online conversation starts with the work of newspaper reporters. And if you’re a person—or a society—dependent on news, it’s a matter of simple math: Two daily voices are better than one.


Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.