Absence of dissent
The demise of alternative press in Las Vegas left stadium proposal unchallenged
“Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.”
— Supreme Court Justice William Brennan
In August, an impassioned newspaper editorial denounced a plan to spend $750 million in taxpayer funds for a football stadium in Las Vegas. Citing studies questioning the economic benefits of taxpayer-subsidized arenas in other cities, the editorial urged Nevada lawmakers to reject the deal.
The editorial, along with the staff reporting on which its argument was built, reflected the sort of independent, inquisitive journalism that citizens expect from their community’s news media. But this editorial did not appear in Las Vegas. It was published by the Reno Gazette-Journal. Almost nobody in Las Vegas saw it.
Meanwhile, the local media either unabashedly championed the proposal or handled it with kid gloves.
It was no surprise the Las Vegas Review-Journal actively promoted the stadium plan: The newspaper’s owner, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is the stadium’s primary private investor. Under previous owners, the R-J surely would have asked tough questions about the huge taxpayer subsidy. During the long stewardship of Stephens Media, the R-J was known for its near-libertarian and anti-tax positions. But with Adelson signing the checks, there was zero chance the R-J would engage in the investigative reporting or skeptical editorial writing the subject deserved.
The Las Vegas Sun’s reluctance to challenge the plan was harder to understand. Its owner, Brian Greenspun, could have served as the counterbalance to the R-J’s all-in support, but he remained mum. His silence was deafening, considering how he normally would have something to say about a local issue of such significance.
Not so long ago, there would have been a third voice in the mix. From 1996 to 2014, if Las Vegans wanted fresh perspectives on local issues, they could pick up a free weekly newspaper called CityLife. Rest assured, if the stadium proposal had surfaced while CityLife was publishing, it would have received intense scrutiny.
Through three owners, CityLife rarely shied away from the important issues in town, often providing information and perspectives that questioned the dogmatic assumptions of mainstream media. The paper enjoyed an unparalleled degree of independence, even when it was owned by Stephens Media, which presented starkly different views in its daily paper.
Sadly, those days of editorial diversity are gone. The changing economics of the newspaper business forced CityLife to close in 2014. Its competitors, Las Vegas Weekly (which Greenspun owns) and Vegas Seven, have survived largely because they pivoted to become advertising and information vehicles for the entertainment and dance club industries. CityLife, less focused on Strip nightlife, could never compete for that business segment.
When the stadium chatter was at its height — before the Legislature voted for the plan in October — Facebook and Twitter were alive with opinions, pro and con. There was some effort at dialogue on a couple of local sports radio shows, as well (KNPR, too). But social media quips and radio call-ins are a poor substitute for in-depth research and analysis and for thoughtful commentary that pokes holes in the conventional wisdom.
Would more diverse local media coverage have scuttled the stadium deal? Probably not — but that’s not the point. If CityLife or some other alternative source were around today, at least we would have the raw material for a more informed, contentious community discussion. Multiply that by dozens of other pressing issues.
Although it’s unlikely in this digital era that anyone will launch a viable alternative print publication in Las Vegas, political journalist Jon Ralston recently announced plans for a donor-supported news website to be called the Nevada Independent. This could be an answer to Adelson’s agenda-driven R-J and Greenspun’s depleted Sun. Its success will depend largely on the depth of the donors’ pockets and their willingness to allow the Independent to live up to its name.
Geoff Schumacher was editor of CityLife from 1997-2000 and publisher from 2005-2011.