Sheldon Adelson Tightens Grip on Las Vegas Review-Journal
After a brief spell of normalcy seemed to return to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, all bets are now off.
A new publisher has appeared overnight at the paper, a new editor will be installed as soon as Friday, and, sources tell me, stories involving new owner Sheldon Adelson are being reviewed, changed or killed almost daily. (Update: Keith Moyer, former publisher of the Star Tribune, and a Gannett alum, like new publisher Craig Moon, was announced as the new editor Friday afternoon.)
Further, the newsroom is abuzz with word of a list of a half a dozen or so journalists whose work has rubbed Adelson the wrong way over the years, and who may soon be targeted for departure in what one insider describes as a “house-cleaning.”
In addition to such departures, the Review-Journal may see a flurry of resignations sooner than later.
First published at Politico Media
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What began as an abstract fear of a powerful new owner’s political hand wanting to steer the paper’s news coverage, after Sheldon Adelson was revealed as the “secret” buyer of the Review-Journal in early December, has become a reality. Says one knowledgeable insider flatly, “Adelson bought the paper because of the content.”
Longtime Gannett executive Craig Moon, announced as publisher on Thursday, has quickly moved to reverse both business decisions and prominent editorial moves recently implemented, some of them with public fanfare, that aimed to protect the integrity of the newsroom’s news report. Frank Vega, a tough-nosed, near-legendary veteran of the industry in his roles as a Gannett and Hearst publisher, is now consulting Moon and Adelson as they re-make the Review-Journal.
Moon refused to comment on the recent changes, as did other principals involved in the story.
Moon’s appointment overturned two apple carts that had been painstakingly set in place over the past several months.
First is the management contract that set up Gatehouse to run the paper for Adelson.
Second are a set of editorial principles established to address potential conflicts of interest owing to Adelson’s ownership of the paper, which had been run prominently on page threeof the paper each day since the sale (“After Adelson, Gatehouse moves to repair damage”).
Meanwhile, in a Las Vegas courtroom, a civil suit involving Adelson threatens to shed new light on the “judge monitoring” issue that has ridden sidecar to the story of Adelson secretly buying the Review-Journal in December. In that matter, Gatehouse reporters were told to “monitor” Las Vegas judges, including one that has been a particular thorn in Sheldon Adelson’s side, as she presided over a civil suit involving him. Any further revelation threatens collateral damage to Gatehouse Media, the company that sold the Review-Journal to Adelson for $140 million almost two months ago. We detail that part of this ongoing saga, in the companion piece, “Can Gatehouse distance itself from the Adelson sale?”
New publisher Moon will name a new editor, a next step in Adelson quickly asserting direct control of the Review-Journal. Though a half dozen or so finalists for the R-J editor position had been recently interviewed by Gatehouse, none of those candidates is likely to get the job; they were unknowingly applying for a job about to be filled separately by the new publisher.
That new editor, likely to be announced Friday or soon after, will succeed interim editor Glenn Cook. Cook, senior editorial writer on the paper’s conservative editorial page, had spearheaded the framing of the newsroom’s new principles. Update: On Friday, the Review-Journal named J. Keith Moyer editor.
Moon’s appointment came as a surprise to most in the top management of Gatehouse, which had become Adelson’s business partner – agreeing to manage the paper under a new contract – after it sold the R-J to him in December. Now, that management contract continues in a much-reduced state. “It’s transactional work,” Mike Reed, CEO of Gatehouse/New Media Investment Group, told me Wednesday. “Things like accounting, legal and purchasing.”
In purchasing newsprint and ink, Adelson’s News + Media Capital Group can benefit from the buying power Gatehouse wields as a large newspaper conglomerate.
The terms of the new business partnership between Gatehouse – which had sold the paper to Adelson for more than a $50 million gain, compared to the price it had paid for it nine months previously — and Adelson seemed to be working. Publisher Jason Taylor, while also responsible for the Gatehouse chain’s western 100-plus newspapers, would continue to work for Gatehouse. Gatehouse, in turn, would provide management services, through Taylor, a respected and innovative newspaper executive.
As the new year dawned, it looked like the Adelson-bought newspaper was also getting its house in better journalistic order. After announcing the hiring of 30 journalists (some to restore positions that had been eliminated concurrent with the sale), to fill out a depleted newsroom, the R-J listed nationally at least 13 open jobs, including the long-vacant managing editor job.
Further, it had published a set of principles that clearly demarcated how the paper would cover its new owner, one of Las Vegas’ most news-making citizens, and included those principles daily on page three of the paper. Those changes had been worked through by Taylor, the newsroom leadership, and industry veteran Dave Butler, the editor of Gatehouse’s Providence Journal (“After Adelson: Gatehouse moves to repair Las Vegas damage”).
On his first day on the job, Moon had those principles removed from regular publication. Within five hours, the immediate inherent conflicts of Adelson ownership made themselves highly apparent. The Review-Journal reported that Adelson had met with the ownership of Oakland Raiders football team, hoping to lure them to Las Vegas and into a new “public/private”-funded $1 billion domed stadium.
The new publisher has reviewed each stadium story since, and the stories have seen numerous Moon-directed edits, several sources confirm. Those edits include removing key points of fact on what may turn out to become a $600 million-plus public investment in a football stadium. At least one stadium story was killed, as well, my sources confirm.
It is near impossible to overestimate the depth of the conflict involved in the Adelson ownership. As a major player in the gaming industry in Las Vegas, Macau and Singapore, top donor to Republican Party candidates and now the booster of a “public-private” funded football stadium, Adelson-related stories have appeared in the R-J for years. For years, the paper has “lawyered” each Adelson-related story, given the magnate’s history of litigiousness. Now that review is being done in house, with very different results.
As Craig Moon removed the published principles, he noted that such detail in disclosure is unusual in American newspapering. He’s right.
As I’ve written, it’s not unusual for publishers to maintain a policy by which they must see any mention of their paper or its ownership before publication. In standard practice, that’s intended as a heads-up for the business side, and not an invitation to make story changes that make the ownership or management look better.
Further, the whole Adelson-buying-of-the-R-J affair, though, is anything but business-as-usual.
In this case, with journalistic practice already squarely in question – and the question of journalistic malpractice raised — the vanished principles speak to a much-lowered firewall between the new political owner and a newsroom trying to do its job fairly.
For the Review-Journal, then, the act of removing the principles is both symbolic of Adelson’s assertion of control and one with wider, immediate implications. Adelson’s own involvement in reviewing the R-J content has become a constant.
The Year Ahead
For former R-J publisher Jason Taylor, it’s an opportunity to step out of the madness. By Adelson’s wish, Taylor had assumed an odd man-in-the middle role that turned out to be unworkable. He’ll remain in Las Vegas, responsible for Gatehouse’s Western states titles and its events strategies, industry-leading notions I highlighted a couple of years ago.
Gatehouse itself, given the highly questioned “judge monitoring,” is at work trying to calm the concerns of its editors and publishers over the public black eye to the credibility of its journalism.
In Las Vegas, readers must be unsure of the kind of Review-Journal — the state’s biggest news source — they’ll get in print and digital. Will the Review-Journal become a pariah paper, less trusted to report the news without censorship? Its new publisher and editor must maneuver a path between an owner who expects his new property to be a mouthpiece and a newsroom newly self-empowered to tell its readers what it actually knows. That may be a narrow path, or there may be none at all.
Then, there’s the question of Sheldon Adelson’s wider ambitions. Might his News + Media Capital Group have greater aims than the ownership of the Review-Journal? Insiders say he does.
If influencing Nevada politics, policy and legislation is one key goal of Adelson, then the next likely target of acquisition for him would be the Gannett-owned Reno Gazette-Journal. The state’s second-largest daily – after the Review-Journal – is situated near Nevada’s legislative capital of Carson City. Might Gannett sell it – if offered more than double its value, as Gatehouse did with the R-J?
Meanwhile, much remains in flux daily at the Review-Journal, as journalists await the next editor and the next sense of what they can publish – and what they can’t.
In the newsroom, there are the whispers and exchanged Adelson-related web links making the rounds, the latest about Argentinian newspaper reports accusing Adelson’s Hayom, his Tel Aviv-based popular daily, of being involved in the Alberto Nisman scandal. (That twisty tale begins with a 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center, which killed 85 people. It then continues into the investigation into the attack’s perpetrators, leading to charges of cover-up against just-departed Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Just Sunday, new President Mauricio Macri pledged to reopen the government’s wider investigation.)
So from Buenos Aires to Macau to Las Vegas, the involvement of Sheldon Adelson in the news lives on, almost non-stop. Almost every new day, a new Adelson tale rolls out, publicly — or otherwise.