Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the newspaper will lead to the end of the R-J as we know it
I have a fraught reader relationship with the Review-Journal. For a long time now, the newspaper has seemed to me like an abused dog I’ve brought into my home, perhaps against my better instincts. That is, I believe in the creature’s innate nobility, its potential to be sweet and be good and do the right thing, but then just as often it does something stupid or terrible.
It’s not necessarily the R-J’s fault. A traumatic legacy of abusive owners, managers and operating philosophies are to blame for the stupid and terrible behavior: out-of-touch editorial screeds that sound like conservative Gilded Age cosplay, or a rightward slant that sometimes skews the front page, or badly concealed revanchist ideological crusades run through its political reportage. (For instance, if you recall the R-J’s coverage of the 2010 Harry Reid-Sharron Angle senate race, you might have received the mistaken impression that Reid was a slavering socialist, and that Angle was something other than a grasping, unhinged demagogue.) Or the forehead-smacking distribution of reporting resources in what’s already a shoestring editorial roster: really, three celebrity/entertainment columnists? Or instances of stunning quantum WTF? menace: Like the period from 2010 to 2011 when the R-J, aghast and bewildered at this scary and strange new form of information-sharing called the Internet, sicced copyright troll Righthaven on hundreds of public interest groups, advocacy websites, politicians and even cat bloggers who had reposted material from the R-J website. Through Righthaven, the R-J shook down scores of victims for quick settlements before the scam ultimately collapsed under sane legal scrutiny. Ah, yes. Firing a blunderbuss at Gordian knots — that’s kind of the R-J way.
And yet there are moments when my heart melts and I think, “Attaboy! That’s my newspaper!” I have in mind their 2011 “Deadly Force” series on police shootings in Las Vegas, a paragon of public-interest reporting that sparked serious reform efforts. And many of their columnists and reporters — Steve Sebelius, John L. Smith, Howard Stutz, Bethany Barnes — cover their beats with unparalleled guts and authority, in original voices free from the institutional drumbeat. (Which is why some of them have written for this publication.) But years of wacky hardline libertarian jihad and a general sense of, well, whatever the opposite of the word goodwill is, have produced in our public consciousness a newspaper personality that’s neurotic, maladjusted and volatile. (To embellish this theory: Read the comments section on any given story. That’s the R-J’s id. That’s a transcript of what the R-J dreams about in its growling, whimpering REM sleep.)
Hit pieces and hidden agendas
Now the dog is about to go full Cujo. On Dec. 16, after much cry, clamor and investigation, it was revealed that the Adelson family had bought the Review-Journal for $140 million, significantly and suspiciously more than the $102.5 million that New Media Investment Group had paid for all of Stephens Media LLC’s newspapers last February. (Disclosure: I worked for Stephens Media from 2001-2009 as managing editor of its alt-weeklies The Mercury and CityLife.) The inflated, almost arbitrary purchase price should have told us who the shadow buyer was: There’s something hasty and bullying in it, petulant and rash. (You have to wonder whether Adelson’s purchase of the R-J is a manifestation of the alchemical principle of like attracting like: finally, an owner suited to the aura of arch, oafish, humorless repudiation the newspaper had developed for itself.)
And, ouch!, the very plot point itself seems like an inversion of the recent trend of public-spirited moguls investing in media outlets: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s launch of First Look Media, Sam Zell’s buying The Tribune Co. (Okay, not Sam Zell.) Surely, it should give one pause when anyone rich and powerful buys a company that has the precious job of disseminating trustworthy information. But at least in their public statements, Bezos and Omidyar made a convincing show of understanding the gravity of owning a relied-upon source of news and information. For his part, Bezos hopes to recharge The Washington Post with his 21st century understanding of media technology (and his wallet) and dramatically broaden the Post’s reach. “I didn’t know anything about the newspaper business, but I did know something about the Internet,” Bezos told the New York Times. “That, combined with the financial runway that I can provide, is the reason why I bought The Post.” After some initial turmoil and turnover, Omidyar’s First Look Media has since stabilized, and recently made a splash with a startling investigation into the U.S.’s drone assassination program. Now, First Look is expanding into broadcast, film and TV. Both Bezos and Omidyar seem to realize news is a public trust as much as a private business.
By contrast, one of the first things to happen under the regime of our own 21st century media visionary: One of Sheldon Adelson’s apparent myrmidons publishes an awkward hit piece on Clark County judge hearing a wrongful-termination lawsuit against Adelson. At least, I think it was supposed to be a hit piece. The story, weirdly Frankensteined together with passages plagiarized from other websites, wasn’t even published in the Review-Journal. It was published, rather, 2,200 miles away in The New Britain Herald in Connecticut under an apparent pseudonym. Meanwhile, at the R-J, Publisher Jason Taylor has censored his own reporters’ stories investigating the paper’s sale, presumably to please Adelson. And, according to reports, Adelson has stepped in directly, “inviting” R-J writers to visit a drug addiction treatment center; you know, just friendly food for thought to perhaps spark a reconsideration of the paper’s progressive stance on loosening marijuana laws. No pressure or anything.
So much for even hoping Adelson’s purchase might fit into that other media storyline of local moguls playing the hero and swooping in to rescue their hometown newspapers. Even that’s a mixed picture: The verdict’s still out on Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry’s 2013 purchase of The Boston Globe, but I’m inclined to put Adelson more in the league of Douglas Manchester, the developer who bought the San Diego Union Tribune in 2012. Readers and media critics have watched him turn the paper into a bullhorn to unapologetically promote Manchester’s business and political agendas.
The guerrilla fight
This rumination on recent events in the R-J’s life is as good as a eulogy, because the R-J as we know it is going to die.
It’s not a conclusion I want to arrive at, but play out the variations and ask yourself what the most likely possible future is, knowing Adelson’s past behavior. He’s fought medical marijuana, militated against online gaming and hounded R-J columnist John L. Smith into bankruptcy with the same single-minded zeal and seemingly bottomless wallet. (Meanwhile, an Adelson lawsuit against a Wall Street Journal reporter — the individual reporter, not the newspaper — for describing him as “foul-mouthed” in a December 2012 article is still ongoing). A billionaire who sues journalists bought the Review-Journal. It seems he was wielding influence over the R-J newsroom before the purchase was apparently even complete: The reporters unwittingly witch-hunting Adelson’s judge foe had started on the project a month before the sale was announced. Recent news that Adelson plans to pump money into the skeletal newsroom and production desk (which had been outsourced to Austin) is certainly welcome news, but only if there are no strings attached. With Adelson, that’s a big if.
The R-J team deserves applause for working with (and sometimes against) Gatehouse executives to MacGyver up some in-house rules and public disclosures to protect the newspaper’s credibility in the short term. But it’s difficult for me to imagine a future in which some courageous corps of reporters and editors, who increasingly seem like a band of outgunned guerrilla fighters, musters some sturdy editorial independence that would withstand the meddling, the predations that are likely to come in the long term. As of this writing, Publisher Jason Taylor still holds power as grand censor of any R-J stories about the Adelson family. It’s less likely that the staff is going to claw back that vital editorial latitude, and more likely that Taylor is the beachhead for future incursions into the newsroom. This is to say nothing of that other, insidious form of censorship — self-censorship — that’s no doubt taking root in their collective editorial psyche.
How does a newspaper die? It doesn’t necessarily go away. It can just starve and fade. In the case of the R-J, the most probable future is something like this: The serious reporters and editors who can’t abide the compact implicitly demanded by the new regime — we can shape, edit, censor and alter the news — will leave, taking with them experience, battle-tested principles, extensive sources and deep institutional wisdom about Las Vegas, the rich stuff you won’t get from their likely replacements: ethically limber J-school grads who’ll have to weigh selling out against a pile of student loans. It’s already happening: Editor Michael Hengel announced in December he was taking a buyout. Others in the building, I’m told, are updating their resumés with an eye on the door.
In other words, it’ll end with a whimper, not a bang. This misfortune — you can’t call it a tragedy — doesn’t even have the benefit of being spectacular (for that, see Sam Zell and The Tribune Co.). It represents a loss of talent, wisdom and experience, but most importantly potential (admittedly, potential that perhaps exists in my own hopeful imagination) for the R-J to become vibrant, trenchant and significant in post-recession Southern Nevada.
I understand the naïvete of that statement. We should remember that the R-J’s Sunday circulation reaches less than a tenth of the metro area. This is, in the end, a billionaire buying a sickly old attack dog with which to … do what? What’s the end game? Fight online gaming, take swings at his political and business foes, continue his comically Sisyphean boulder-rolling of far-right Republicans into relevance? Whatever it is, evidence suggests the R-J’s dog days are only going to get worse.