Journalist Jon Ralston has been a fixture of the Nevada political scene since Madonna was “Like a Virgin” and Harry Reid was a novice congressman. He’s been a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Reno Gazette-Journal, a commentator on Fox News and MSNBC and had a political newsletter, blog and PBS show. His newest project is by far his most ambitious: The Nevada Independent, a website that will cover Silver State politics. It will be a nonprofit publication funded by donations (MGM Resorts International and Switch have already signed up for $250,000 each). Vegas Seven talked to Ralston about today’s media climate, the importance of transparency and “changing the paradigm of journalism.”
Why is now the time to start something like The Nevada Independent?
The one thing in my career I haven’t done … is run a news organization. I’ve mused about it for a while. I started to think more seriously about it after my PBS show got canceled, so I decided around the middle of the year to start seriously exploring doing this. I just thought it was the perfect time to do it in Nevada for a variety of reasons, and I think it’s an even better time now with all of the blowback after the presidential election, with fake news and Trump and the media. I hate to use this term, but I think it’s the perfect storm for us.
I think that people here and also nationally just don’t trust traditional sources of media anymore. They’re looking for something different. They feel the media is almost an alien force—it’s out for itself, it talks down. We want to be much more interactive and engage with our readers. … Our brand is essentially going to be about trust, transparency, truth and experience.
The Nevada Independent will kick off with the 2017 state legislative session. How will your coverage differ from that of other media outlets?
The general approach is not to be the stone skipping across the surface of the lake, but we’re going to go in-depth, diving deeply into a lot of different issues as opposed to being handcuffed by the day-to-day committee hearings. We’re not going to have people siloed—“You cover the assembly, you cover the senate.” We’re going to have three reporters who are experienced in covering the legislature. The Review-Journal, even when I was there, had two reporters, and I would occasionally go up. But to have three reporters based there for 120 days, really getting to know the personalities, the issues, the politics, the rhythm—that’s never been done before.
Is there anything in particular you’re already thinking about covering in the legislature this year?
People who are experienced in covering the legislature know that everything springs from the budget. It controls everything … even policy issues that may not necessarily be budget-related, because they will be subject to the political horse trading and negotiating that goes with major budget items.
The major portion of the budget is education, and we’re going to cover education heavily, including what will be one of the most controversial parts of the governor’s budget, his line item for Education Savings Accounts. We’re going to cover issues surrounding energy. And then there’s just a whole raft of issues we will be devoting a lot of time to covering in-depth—trying to get to the bottom of the policy and to make them accessible to readers in a way that I don’t think anyone else has done either here or elsewhere.
Beyond the legislature, what else will you be writing about?
We’ve hired a Las Vegas reporter as well. She is going to cover education, gaming, business, maybe the municipal elections. The great thing about covering government and politics, especially with that kind of focus, is there’s always something going on, whether the legislature is in session or not, and you transition pretty quickly from a legislative session to a campaign year, so there’ll be plenty for our reporters to cover. Obviously, during the slower times, we’ll concentrate more on investigative journalism, which we also hope will become one of our signatures.
You’ll also be doing Spanish-language reporting. I know that’s good marketing, but is it also reflective of the growing political influence of Nevada’s Latino population?
I can see how people see it as good marketing, and I hope it is. But also the Latino population in Nevada—which has expanded and become a huge political force—has not been well-understood or well-served by the English-speaking media. There is no reason to think that the Latino community is any different than anyone else in finding Carson City remote. Then think about adding a language barrier. So we want to change that, help people better understand what’s going on in Carson City, and how it affects them. It’s not just the quote, unquote Hispanic issues, not just immigration. There’s a great desire to learn more about any issue—whether it’s jobs, the economy or Education Savings Accounts—that affects their daily lives, so that’s why we hired a Spanish-language reporter and why we’re going to hire a service to translate stories into Spanish that are reported in English.
You have a long history in Nevada journalism. Do you think your reputation will boost people’s interest in The Nevada Independent?
I hope to some extent the reputation and brand I’ve built over 30 years helped jump-start the project. But what this is really about is assembling a team of reporters—I had specific people in mind when I conceived this idea, and those are the people I hired. That’s what’s really going to make this thing go. Sure, people may have donated, they may have had enthusiasm about the project because of me, but this is not about me—it’s going to be about the content that’s being produced by this spectacular young group of reporters who are going to be allowed to do things they could not do before and spread their wings.
Do you think being a nonprofit adds to the credibility of the project?
We’re going to be very careful—I emphasize the word transparent: We’re going to be transparent in how we do everything. Not just our journalism, but everything. This is a nonprofit, and we will disclose every donor on the site from Day 1. Our readers will know who our donors are. We’re going to give them a chance to ask questions about the influence of our donors that we’ll be happy to answer. I hope to do a weekly chat with the editors on Facebook or some other venue where people can fire away and ask questions about our journalism. We want people to ask those kinds of questions.
Do you feel that kind of transparency is key in building reader trust, especially now, given current attitudes toward the media?
I don’t want to compare ourselves to other media outlets, but certainly I do think that the media has been—I guess the right word is “prickly”—about any questions that are asked. In some senses, arrogant: “We know better than you.” But we have respect for our readers. We’re going to make mistakes and we’re going to correct them very quickly, but we also are willing to learn from those mistakes and do a better job because of them. We think there are a lot of people out there who aren’t professional journalists, but who are smart and informed about the media, who will question things we do and help make us better. We want to start that dialogue.