Friday, June 17, 2005

A precocious postmortem of the Las Vegas Sun: Part I

When I learned this week that the ‘Sun’, Las Vegas' daily p.m. newspaper, is going to shrivel within the dominant Review-Journal, it brought to mind a hard hitting five part critique that came out nearly six years ago. It was written by a former Sun editor, Ken Ward, and published on a web site that I then owned and managed. Well ahead of the curve, this vintage focus on the Sun's shortcomings has proven sadly prophetic. In that sense, it provides a valuable perspective and a wealth of lessons for anyone with an interest in the business of journalism. Within the next couple of weeks, if not sooner, I should be able to have all of the components posted, so please subscribe to the available feeds for JonnymoOps, or check back here for the additions!

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
Two years of tyranny and turmoil in the Sun’s dysfunctional newsroom
Part 1 of 5
By Ken Ward
(Originally published circa September, 1999)

A while back, the Las Vegas Sun carried a feature story titled “Ahhhhh, Hell.’’ The piece -- all 150 inches of it -- purported to discuss society’s view of Satan as we approach the millennium. Some Sun staffers say the story hit pretty close to some -- and that’s hardly a compliment. Overwritten and underreported (just one local pastor was quoted), the article embodied the soft and squishy journalism that has become the Sun’s hallmark under the reign of Managing Editor Mike Kelley. "Hell’’ also is a metaphor for the bunker mentality that prevails at the Sun offices on Valley View Boulevard.

Employees tell of a newsroom rife with paranoid intrigue and internal politics. Bringing water cooler gossip to a new level, snitching and backstabbing are considered sport. Sycophants are blessed by management while nonconformity is punished.

It’s been quite a fall from grace, considering the Sun’s rambunctious past. Under now-deceased owner Hank Greenspun, the paper earned a statewide and national reputation as a pugnacious voice, targeting organized crime and red-baiting U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis. A.J. Liebling praised the Sun’s aggressiveness in his Wayward Press column that ran in The New Yorker in the ’50s. The Sun prided itself as a paper more inclined to side with the little guy than with powerful special interests.

But those days are gone. While the Sun still employs a handful of accomplished journalists, such as Carson City veteran Cy Ryan and syndicated political cartoonist Mike Smith, the paper has hit rock bottom under its current management.

The most obvious manifestation of the Sun’s turmoil is its comings and goings. Since Kelley arrived from Chicago’s Daily Southtown newspaper two years ago, some 25 staffers have left. By industry standards, that’s a phenomenally high number for a paper with just over 60 employees. And the churn continues. A half dozen reporters and editors hired by Kelley have already left. Some lasted less than a year. Louis Chunovic, on board for two weeks, was fired the day after he wrote a caustic review of a charity gala honoring the late Frank Sinatra, a long-time pal of Publisher Barbara Greenspun.

Though the Page One piece was vetted by the editors, Chunovic took the fall. Kelley, who has a standing policy of not speaking to local media about newsroom operations and would not return phone calls for this story, was brought in by the Greenspun family to shake things up. But the afternoon paper keeps suffering from self-inflicted wounds.

Through its revolving door, the Sun has ushered in a phalanx of new reporters with little or no knowledge of Las Vegas or Nevada. While learning on the job, they are getting soundly beaten on stories -- and not just by the Review-Journal. The weekly Las Vegas Business Press and the monthly Real Estate Journal routinely break news before the Sun.

Even worse than the inexperience is the inaction. The Page One editing slot was left vacant for more than six months, leaving a depleted copy desk to scramble each morning. Job applicants for numerous openings come and go but, amid the turnover, empty desks remain.Mark Konkol, who applied for a federal court position, flew out from Kelley’s Chicago alma mater to look over the Sun last month.

He had heard colorful stories about Kelley’s Southtown tenure. He left Las Vegas unimpressed.“It was a weird experience,’’ he said. “They talked about how they are going to buy the R-J and were talking shit about that paper. The R-J doesn’t seem like much of a paper either, but it was pussy stuff. I didn’t want to hear it.’’While saying he liked the staff well enough, Konkol added, “The place didn’t seem professional, it looked like (management) played favorites. It’s the kind of place that needs a union.’’

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