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Desert Companion

Journalism: Editor at large

ralston-2.jpg

Jon Ralston
Photography by Brent Holmes

Jon Ralston’s ambitious news site will write another chapter in the colorful history of independent Nevada media

 

Sigh. Remember the days when fake news was something to laugh at? An outrageous headline on the Weekly World News in the checkout rack, a biting Onion story you just had to share on social media? But it turns out that fake news — not mere silliness or satire, but fabricated stories purporting to be true — is no joke. A BuzzFeed analysis found that in the run-up to the election, Facebook users read and shared more hoax stories than real, actual news articles — a factor that likely influenced the outcome of the election. On the upside, that discovery seems to have sparked a renewed appreciation for the role of real journalism in an informed society: According to the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, many news organizations, including Pro Publica, the New
York Times and The Guardian, saw a spike in donations and subscriptions after Nov. 8.

Jon Ralston is hoping some of that love comes his way. You know Ralston as a veteran political columnist and TV pundit (and, in disclosure, contributor to “KNPR’s State of Nevada” and Desert Companion). This month, you’ll know him as something else: As founder and editor of The Nevada Independent.

Support comes from

“There’s a need for an independent journalism site in Nevada; there’s a void here,” he says, “and I think we can fill it.” So far, that “we” comprises an editorial team that includes familiar names such as Managing Editor Elizabeth Thompson and columnist and author John L. Smith. The Nevada Independent’s board includes former KLAS Channel 8 anchor Paula Francis and Bob Stoldal, best known for his three-plus decades leading the news division at Channel 8 (he’s also a KNPR contributing editor). Ralston aims for The Nevada Independent (thenevadaindependent.com) to go live this month with an initial full-time staff of seven. Beyond in-depth coverage of the 2017 Legislature, The Nevada Independent will cover politics, education and business.

Its mission statement sparkles with ambition: “To change the face of journalism in Nevada and establish a new paradigm for nonprofit, community-supported news organizations.” But the “new paradigm” — independent, fact-based journalism supported by donors — is based on principles and models that have been around for decades. (Public radio, anyone?)

Not to mention the spirit. Indeed, The Nevada Independent won’t be the first upstart news platform launched in hopes of competing with mainstays such as the Review-Journal, the Las Vegas Sun and the Reno Gazette-Journal. For instance, there was the Valley Times. Bob Brown, a former Review-Journal editor, bought a sleepy North Las Vegas periodical in 1973 and turned it into a citywide daily, publishing iconic Vegas bylines such as Ned Day. UNLV history professor Michael Green joined the staff when he was 17.

“We competed journalistically (with the R-J and Sun), but never financially,” Green recalls. “Financially, it was something between a failure and disaster, but we published the work of some very good journalists.” Brown’s devotion to the newspaper led him down some dark paths. He fell in with mob associate Frank Rosenthal, who laundered money through the newspaper. And according to former Gov. Bob List, Brown also embarked on a failed extortion scheme against then-Gov. List to help get Rosenthal a gaming license. Brown died in June 1984, and the Valley Times died two weeks later.

Arguably part of the lineage as well: Las Vegas CityLife, founded in 1992 as The Las Vegas New Times. A weekly newspaper known as much for its snarky contrarianism as its substance, CityLife over the years hosted recognizable names such as Steve Sebelius, George Knapp and Geoff Schumacher (and, in disclosure, mine). It was eventually purchased in 2005 by Stephens Media, then-owner of the Review-Journal, which shuttered the weekly in 2014.

The history extends to online journalism as well: Hospitality executive and philanthropist (and one-time congressional candidate) Tom Gallagher started a news and commentary website, NevadaToday.com, that existed from November 2006 to December 2007 and published writers such as Steve Friess, Hugh Jackson and Bob Shemeligian. Gallagher remembers it as a labor of love — because, then as now, nobody had quite figured out how to make online news profitable. Gallagher estimates he sunk up to $150,000 into the site, not to mention the manual work required to post links to national stories in a time before automated news aggregators became common. “I was doing a lot of the aggregation myself, staying up late at night to pull stuff from the East Coast papers and London. We were a little before our time. ... I finally just decided it wasn’t worth the money.” Gallagher sees promise in the nonprofit journalism model and says he plans to donate to The Nevada Independent. “It’s an expensive proposition to do any kind of good journalism online that has staying power. Hopefully this is a model that’s financially sustainable.”

Ralston is optimistic. “We’re starting purely with donations,” he says, “and we hope to be self-sustaining by the third year, and we hope to have a combination of donations (and) special events, 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 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.”

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.

 

Note: This story was corrected on Jan. 4 to reflect that Bob Brown was accused by then-Gov. Bob List of an extortion attempt; the previous version reported it as fact.

KNPR's State of Nevada
Dec 13, 2016

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