The neon story machine: Former Vegas journos strike it big in D.C.
Why are former Las Vegas journalists finding such success in Washington D.C.? Our city breeds a talent for telling good stories
A decade ago, if you asked which Las Vegas journalists had gone on to national prominence in Washington D.C., there was basically one answer: Major Garrett. He was a bit of a technicality, too, because Garrett had been a Review-Journal reporter way back in the pre-Mirage, pre-boom era of 1980s and only reincarnated himself in 2000 as the TV journalist he’s known as today.
Yet in recent years, the once rarely traveled path from Nevada to the nation’s capital and broader media notoriety has become a well-worn — and much shorter — highway.
Turn on MSNBC on any given day and you’re likely to see former R-J and Sun scribe Molly Ball deciphering the latest political moves. Open any newspaper in the country and you’ll inevitably run into the trenchant investigative work of Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter Adam Goldman, formerly of the Vegas bureau of the Associated Press — and one of the AP scribes whose phone records were seized in a recent Department of Justice leak probe.
Tune in to a White House news conference and there to pester press secretary Jay Carney alongside Garrett is another ex-Vegas AP staffer, Kathleen Hennessey of the Los Angeles Times. Log on to POLITICO and you’ll see what former R-J reporter Mike Zapler, in his job as political editor, has deemed the agenda-setting stories of the day. Some of those might be mine.
The list goes on — and for good reason: Las Vegas is that special news town that draws in young, adventurous journalists and feeds their ambitions generously with an endless parade of jaw-dropping stories. Some of those yarns have serious national implications, from the Harry Reid-Sharron Angle race for Senate to the housing market collapse to the challenges of the fastest-growing school district. Others — the tiger attack on Roy Horn, O.J. Simpson’s robbery trial, the spectacle of a mob attorney and now his wife occupying the mayoralty — are simply too riveting for the nation to ignore.
“It made Washington seem like a cakewalk by comparison,” says Ball, a staff writer for The Atlantic who lived in Las Vegas from 2004 to 2009 and whose husband, former R-J cops reporter David Kihara, is managing editor for the website of WJLA, the ABC affiliate in D.C. “I can’t imagine a better molding and shaping experience for a young reporter. There were so many stories that nobody can do them all, and so much talent that everyone must be on their A games.”
The diversity of the journalists who have made the leap from Las Vegas to Washington is dramatic. Emily Richmond, the Las Vegas Sun’s longtime education expert, is now a mentor to schools reporters across the nation from her perch as public editor of the Education Writers Association. Sam Skolnik, who covered courts and Las Vegas City Hall from 2006 to 2009 and wrote a book on gambling addiction after falling victim to a massive round of layoffs at the Sun, remade himself as deputy editor of the National Law Journal. Kate Bennett, whose various Nevada identities from 1999 to 2010 included Sun gossip columnist, TV anchor and editor-in-chief of Vegas Magazine, is now fashion editor of Washingtonian magazine and editor-in-chief of its spinoff, Washingtonian Bride & Groom.
What they all have in common is an ability to marvel at their Las Vegas lives as formative to their professional identities. “I immediately felt that Las Vegas journalism had a pioneering spirit,” Bennett says. “If you wanted it, you could make it. I had never been to the town before and I became an insider in a matter of weeks.”
In fact, several of these journalists had never set foot in Vegas before considering jobs here. Neither Ball nor Kihara had ever visited, even though Ball’s uncle is, as she puts it, “the slightly famous professional poker player Barry Greenstein.” Zapler, who had been covering Nevada for the Sun from Washington, D.C., came out with his dad in part to take a look at the proposed nuclear waste dump site of Yucca Mountain that he was covering from afar. Goldman swooped in for his first time from Birmingham, Ala., where he covered the crime beat, and was dazzled.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, how do you cover this?’” he says. “I was dating someone, and I took the job without even telling her.”
In some cases, friends and colleagues were baffled at their decision to go. With the exception of Skolnik, an inveterate poker player, and Goldman, who casually bets on sports, none were particularly given to the piece of Vegas that most Americans think of first. But that was sort of the point — that this was a city that had some very serious news that needed attention beyond its flashy exterior. “I don’t gamble and a big entertainment nightlife scene has never been high on my criteria for a place I wanted to live,” Richmond says. “But I was intrigued by what was happening in this community, and this was an opportunity to see from the inside.”
‘People had to deal with you’
The head-spinning pace of growth presented unusual opportunities for young reporters, Zapler says. Staffing at the local newspapers barely grew even as the city’s population exploded, an imbalance that gave any hungry journalist in Las Vegas an outsized berth to roam. “In any other big city, you’d probably have three or four people covering City Hall. I walked in there and on Day One I’m covering City Hall of this boom town and getting front page stories. Everybody read your stuff, you had a lot of clout, people had to deal with you. You learned how to handle yourself. That was where I really learned how to be a reporter.” For folks like Hennessey and Goldman, too, it was important experience in learning how to write and report a localized story for a national audience.
you do everything and learn how to do everything,” says Smith, who worked in Vegas from 2001 to 2011. “For a city of its size, Las Vegas had so much big, breaking news that you kind of got used to it.”
The rough-and-tumble of the Vegas media crucible also provided important lessons, too. Because the city continued for much of the last decade to have two robust, competing newspapers, journalists who came here learned more about vying with colleagues for stories than reporters emerging from one-newspaper towns. Some, like Hennessey, recall that fondly, noting, “It had just the right amount of cutthroat competition.”
Others, like Ball and Goldman, were targets of barbs that their later success would prove to be a function of jealousy and pettiness. In 2006, for instance, Ball was mocked as one of the town’s worst reporters by Las Vegas CityLife on account of some minor story errors. “I wasn’t happy about it, but it’s part of journalism and part of covering a beat like politics, people are going to say really nasty things,” Ball says. “I knew I was not the worst journalist in Las Vegas. I didn’t let it bother me.” Goldman, for his part, routinely swapped harsh emails with a prominent columnist who delighted in pillorying him.
There are many explanations for this surge in Vegas-trained journalists in D.C., not the least of which is, as Hennessey noted, it’s where the jobs are these days in a rapidly changing and financially challenged media industry. But, also, once they’ve arrived in the capital, their intimate knowledge of increasingly visible Nevada politics becomes a clear asset as the Beltway tried to understand Harry Reid’s ascent, John Ensign’s fall, the impact of the changing ethnic and racial makeup of the electorate and more. Hennessey, for instance, understood the irony of President Obama hunkering down to prepare to defend his economic record in a 2012 debate with Mitt Romney at Lake Las Vegas, simultaneously the epitome of Vegas’ bubble hubris and crash devastation. After her piece describing that contrast ran in the L.A. Times, The New York Times and others followed with similar perspectives.
The economic crash did figure in many decisions to move on, and several of these reporters lost their homes and savings to foreclosure or short sales “just like everybody else,” as Bennett puts it. That sudden shift in Vegas’ narrative from limitless growth and prosperity to a notorious financial disaster area was difficult to navigate personally and professionally; Skolnik lost his job in a slew of Greenspun Media Group layoffs, for instance. Looking back on it, Goldman feels he let readers down by not scrutinizing the questionably, highly risky economic underpinnings of the boom. “I regret that,” he says. “I should have taken a more critical look at how over-leveraged the casinos were.”
Bennett also found it harder to feel good about publishing a luxury magazine amid such widespread devastation. “When you watch the rise of something as we did and see what happened, I took it personally,” Bennett says. “I watched fine dining places figure out how to make burgers and fries, I watched people toting coolers of beer as they checked in to the Bellagio. It became hard to see what it was and see what it was turning into.”
Some just found Vegas a better place to be young and childless than older with families. But all who made this leap look back on their time in Nevada with fondness. The lessons from those stints resonate today in important ways. Goldman, now a married father of two, credits Vegas with showing him “how to deal with big corporations who have spokesmen who protect the interests of their companies.” Says Bennett: “I learned about ethics, reporting and sourcing — I learned about journalism every day without taking journalism masters classes.” And Ball, who also had her second child this spring, gave the town a lion’s share of credit for her success: “Almost everything I learned in journalism, I learned in Vegas. And it got me here.”