Saturday, June 18, 2005

A precocious postmortem of the Las Vegas Sun: Part II

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!

Ethical Lapses
Two years of tyranny and turmoil in the Sun’s dysfunctional newsroom
Part 2 of 5
By Ken Ward
(Originally published circa September, 1999)

Ironically, the Sun started as a union paper in 1949. After striking R-J pressmen launched the Free Press, Hank Greenspun took over and renamed it the Sun. In the ensuing years, Greenspun developed a reputation as a small-time muck-raker. By the mid-’70s, the Sun had nearly matched the R-J’s circulation, then around 70,000.

But the seeds of a dysfunctional culture were being sowed too. Poor pay, capricious editorial decisions, a succession of managing editors, incompetent marketing and a decrepit press hobbled the Sun (whose newsroom remained non-union by the way). By the time Greenspun died in 1989, his paper was hemorrhaging. Hank’s heirs agreed to a joint operating agreement with the arch-rival R-J and converted to the p.m. cycle.Circulation took an immediate dive -- and it’s never recovered.

Now under 37,000, and slipping in one of the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan markets, the Sun continues to fall further behind what Editor Brian Greenspun still delusionally refers to as “the little paper down the street.’’ Greenspun, who is still contemplating a run for U.S. Senate, is, like his mother and brother, a registered Republican. He’s also a college pal of Bill Clinton, even writing a front-page story about the president without disclosing his close friendship and presidential sleepovers at his Henderson home.

But none of this means that Greenspun & Co. are friends of organized labor. In fact, Barbara Greenspun once told then-Managing Editor Sandra Thompson that she would shut down the paper before she’d accept a union.Kelley -- an on-again, off-again journalist who spent four years as an executive assistant with the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund -- has proclaimed his desire to clean up the ethically challenged Sun. He has issued new guidelines that attempt to curb conflicts of interest and halt the flow of freebies. His efforts have been generally praised by staffers as long overdue. But when confronted with an ethical conundrum involving four reporters who took an expenses-paid junket to a Sacramento Kings’ playoff game last spring, Kelley threw up a brick. Sportswriter Tim Graham quit, but the other three got off with no apparent sanctions.
Still more ethical potholes lay ahead, however.

A second participant in the Kings’ freeload, police reporter Karen Zekan, was accused of having an 18-month sexual affair with a Metro Police public information officer while covering the department. The allegation came in a July 13 letter that ex-reporter Cathy Scott wrote to Sun management.

Zekan was fired within a week. It remains an open question what Kelley knew and when he knew it -- or if action would have been taken if Scott hadn’t sent the letter. (Scott, who was fired last year, is suing Metro for violating her civil rights, claiming that the department pressured the Sun to have her terminated. She alleges that Zekan leaked damaging information to the cop shop.)

Zekan vaguely denies Scott’s account and says Sun management never showed her the damning letter. But, in retrospect, the alleged liaison would explain Zekan’s soft coverage, which included litters of cuddly features about the police canine unit. All she told editors at the time was that she didn’t feel “comfortable’’ writing tough stories about the department. In her last month on the job, she was transferred to the features section.“Now he can bring in his own big-busted women,’’ she says of Kelley.

Zekan, who has been consulting with lawyers of her own, says, “After all the shit (the Sun and Scott) gave me, my career is ruined. What am I going to do, work at a department store?’’ Guilty or not, Zekan was the second Kings junketeer to bite the dust. The two others, Adrienne Packer and John Katsilometes, continue to plod along. Hired by Kelley, the pair, who married on the job, appear to have escaped unscathed.

Katsilometes, a former sports writer who had been let go by the R-J, now has a twice-weekly column in the feature section. He’s the third writer Kelley has tried in that slot after terminating long-time columnist Bob Shemeligian. (Katsilometes, named one of the city’s worst journalists by CityLife, also authored the aforementioned “Hell’’ story.)Packer remains on the county beat, churning out meeting stories and features. Until the R-J’s Steve Friess left for the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, she was regularly beaten on hard news involving controversial land deals, misspending and malfeasance.

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