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‘Independent’ day: Jon Ralston to launch news website

Jon Ralston is the king of talking-head punditry in Nevada, known for his rapid-fire delivery and ankle-chewing interrogations of pols and poobahs. You’ll soon know him in a decidedly different role: As the editor of an ambitious news and politics site he’s launching in January. It’s called The Nevada Independent. 

“There’s a need for an independent journalism site in Nevada, there’s a void here,” he says over coffee on a recent morning, “and I think we can fill it.” So far, that we comprises an editorial team that includes some familiar names in Southern Nevada journalism, such as Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson and columnist and author John L. Smith; and a board that boasts some stalwarts too, including former KLAS Channel 8 anchor Paula Francis and Bob Stoldal, best known for his more than three decades helming the news division at Channel 8 (he's also a KNPR contributing editor). Ralston aims to launch The Nevada Independent by the second week of January with an initial full-time staff of six. 

Why now? Ralston says he’s been mulling the idea of launching a news site for a “long, long time,” but the timing seems particularly relevant now given recent developments in media. Close to home, consider casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s December 2015 purchase of the Review-Journal in order to push his interests such as the publicly funded football stadium, marijuana prohibition, and a Trump presidency. Beyond that, the viral growth of fact-free, hyperpartisan echo-chamber websites and outright fabricated news are now understood to have had a troubling influence on voters in the 2016 presidential election. And, of course, media moguls, academics and start-up whizzes are still trying to find the magic formula for sustainable journalism in the digital era. (One of the very latest, Axios, launched by Politico alumni, hints at having The Answer in its cryptic, buzzy manifesto.) 

Finally, amid pronouncements of the death of facts in a post-truth world, there seems to be a growing collective morning-after ephiphany that, hey, maybe journalism is important, resulting in bumps in support of legit news orgs such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. 

More practically, Ralston wants a January launch to get a jump on the 2017 Legislature. “To be honest, the Nevada Legislature has never been covered that well by any media organization,” he says. In addition to in-depth coverage of the statehouse, The Nevada Independent will cover politics, education and business. But don’t look for lifestyle features or sports coverage; the Independent aims to be where serious-minded Nevada news junkies get their fix. 

And, Ralston hopes, become donors. The Nevada Independent, a nonprofit project, will rely largely on donations and advertising to bring in money.

“We’re starting purely with donations,” Ralston says, “and we hope to be self-sustaining by the third year, and we hope to have a combination of donations, special events and advertising, maybe premium content on the site later on, so we’re going to have four or five revenue sources in the end.” Some of the Independent’s brand-name benefactors so far, Ralston says, include MGM Resorts International and Switch, which he says have each pledged $250,000. Ralston anticipates an annual operating budget of $1 million a year. “This whole world of fundraising is totally new to me,” he says.

Wait a sec — Ralston, editor and fundraiser? Yes, at least for now. “I’m doing (fundraising) because I have to do it,” he says, promising transparency about the donor list and admitting a certain discomfort with the dual roles, a possible conflict-of-interest quagmire.

“I’ve thought about it, and I’m probably going to address it in a column or an editor’s note at some point," he says. "It’s uncomfortable in the sense that I’m going out and asking people I have covered, and will cover, for money. It’s not the position I wanted to be in, but I think my brand, such as it is — whatever it is — after covering politics and government in this state for 30 years, is going to help jump start this.”

But he’s not just relying on his brand. The Nevada Independent has a few newish ideas to attract readers, too, including a plan to phase in Spanish-language versions of stories and foster reader interactivity. 

“That’s one other thing the media has not done well, either locally or anywhere else — interactivity. People feel alienated from the media. They feel the media’s either out of touch, biased, or isn’t doing the job that it was meant to do," he says. "We’re going to encourage interactivity with our readers — and criticism from our readers, without fear of us having the last word. We want our readers to engage with us, we want to have forums, we want to encourage dialogue. We want people to feel that this is the community’s newspaper.”

With such an upbeat outlook, it’s enough to make you even consider reading the comments. 

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