When the Las Vegas Review-Journal was mysteriously sold for $140 million in December to News + Media Capital Group LCC, a newly-formed Delaware corporation, the paper’s reporters went to work right away to find out who was behind the company. Many wondered why the secrecy? Even publisher Jason Taylor wasn’t talking.
Soon, ethical concerns arose from inside the newsroom as well as from those watching the news unfold in the industry. “Not disclosing ownership… raises ethical questions about how reporters can possibly disclose conflicts of interest with the company that signs their paychecks,” the newspaper wrote.
Then, it was revealed billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson was behind the purchase. According to media analyst Ken Doctor, Adelson isn’t like the other U.S. billionaires who have bought papers over the years recently. “He’s a billionaire who spent about $100 million on Republican candidacies in 2012 and who hosted the last Republican debate at his own Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.”
A “Republican godfather,” Doctor described in a Politico article (politi.co/1IUOVtT).
Certainly, this was troublesome news. Less than two weeks after the sale’s announcement, editor Michael Hengel stepped down from his position. He told the New York Times Adelson’s business and political interests, and the potential conflicts they created for the paper, were a factor in his decision to accept a buyout. In January, editorial writer Glenn Cook was named interim editor.
His first order of business was to introduce new editorial guidelines on how the Review-Journal should cover its new owner.
As reported in USA Today (usat.ly/1UCXtWO), they include: “The publisher will review all stories regarding Adelson’s ownership of the paper…The paper will cover the gaming industry as it has in the past…and Adelson’s ownership will be disclosed in ‘major’ stories about Las Vegas Sands, and the Adelson family will receive ‘no special treatment’ in coverage.”
That’s a good sign for the community. In a front page editorial soon after the sale, the newspaper was also quick to reassure readers they could still trust their hometown paper.
“We knew you wouldn’t trust us if the identities of this newspaper’s owners remained secret. And we knew we had but one chance to regain that trust: Being the first to conclusively report the identities of our owners,” said the editorial.
It continued: “You can be assured that if the Adelsons attempt to skew coverage, by ordering some stories covered and others killed or watered down, the Review-Journal’s editors and reporters will fight it. How can you be sure? One way is to look at how we covered the secrecy surrounding the newspaper’s sale. We dug in. We refused to stand down. We will fight for your trust. Every. Single. Day. Even if our former owners and current operators don’t want us to.”
It will be interesting to see how this new chapter affects the work being done at the Review-Journal. Will more people follow Hengel out the door? Will the paper’s watchdog journalism continue, even if they’re reporting on their owner? Given Adelson’s political affiliations, what kind of coverage and endorsements will we see in the paper this election year?
Speaking of this election year, this month’s cover story focuses on newspapers and political advertisements. According to Borrell Associates, Inc., political advertising is expected to hit $11.4 billion in 2016, 20 percent more than the last presidential election year. Among the many platforms politicians will be using in their campaigns, newspapers are sure to play a big part—and it’s because of that trusted relationship with readers. So, let’s build on that confidence; let’s be the voice that makes sense in all this chaos.
Editor’s Note: The Las Vegas Review-Journal announced on Jan. 28 that former president and publisher of USA Today, Craig Moon, would take over as publisher.