Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A precocious postmortem of the Las Vegas Sun: Part III

When I learned 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!

Getting Scooped
Two years of tyranny and turmoil in the Sun’s dysfunctional newsroom
Part 3 of 5
By Ken Ward
(Originally published circa September, 1999)


In interviews with a dozen current and former employees, it becomes clear that hard news and trenchant reporting are not at the top of the Sun’s agenda these days. Kelley is fond of USA Today-style “centerpieces.’’ But unlike the nation’s largest newspaper, the Sun serves up warmed-over soufflés -- pretty pictures, but less filling.
So-called “Sun Exclusives’’ generally consist of a diet of documents spoon-fed to “senior investigative reporter’’ Jeff German. In earlier days, German’s tough reportage once got Steve Wynn so mad that Brian Greenspun was barred from the casino mogul’s exclusive Shadow Creek Golf Course. Of late, however, the pit bull has become a lap dog. One of German’s recent commentaries extolled the civic virtues of Wynn’s self-serving scheme for a publicly financed sports arena.

And more journalistic debacles appear daily. A soporific eight-part series on life in a classroom droned on in exhausting, pointless detail -- without naming any children or even showing their faces. The Sports staff actually rewrote a press release and labeled it an exclusive.Meanwhile, Sun reporters were asleep at the wheel when propane tanks exploded at the Treasure Island hotel-casino -- a story that the crusading Hank would have bannered. They were a day late on Las Vegas mayoral favorite Jay Bingham’s withdrawal from the race.
And the paper skipped over UNLV’s controversial decision to kick adjunct English professors out of their offices and into a trailer.Features Editor Steve Bornfeld once offered tough critiques of Las Vegas TV news in his weekly column. But now, since the Sun launched its own cable news channel, Bornfeld assiduously avoids any local commentary.

Some newsroom wags say Kelley hasn’t had a scoop since he sold Swensen’s Midwest Inc., where he owned and operated ice cream shops in the late ‘70s. Indeed, in the m.e.’s 40-year career, 18 years have been spent outside the news business.“He’s not worried about news. It’s all about who likes him and who’s talking,’’ says one former editor. “That’s why the competent people are leaving. They don’t need to put up with the horseshit.’’

In addition to his Teamster duty, the managing editor’s eclectic resume also includes eight years as a staffer to former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton. The Missourian is best remembered as George McGovern’s erstwhile vice presidential nominee who quickly bowed out when it was learned that he had received electro-shock treatment for depression.

Kelley’s only other journalistic experience was two separate tours at the Kansas City Times (now defunct). Claiming that he transformed the Daily Southtown into a metropolitan powerhouse, Kelley has made some improvements at the Sun. The city desk has been bulked up, the paper was redesigned, and the business section competes well (though two of its best reporters also departed inside a year).

One top editor, who also asked that his name be withheld, praises Kelley for being “precise.’’ “He works long hours and he has his own way of doing things,’’ this editor said. When the Sun does break news, it often comes via Executive Editor Mike O’Callaghan. The former two-term governor has perhaps the best network of sources in the state, and he has tipped many a reporter to major stories concerning politics, the military, law enforcement and even sports.

Ed Koch, one of the few remaining veterans on the cityside staff, also has the ability to quickly turn around dispatches on a variety of subjects. A throwback to the days of the grizzled general assignment reporter, Koch maintains an institutional memory that has all but faded in the Sun newsroom.

And so the paper continues to flail. The growth and development reporter left after an uninspiring stint. He was replaced months later by a reporter from the bustling metropolis of Wilmington, Del., which has been l-o-s-i-n-g population. At least one day a week, the front page of the Sun’s features section is devoid of any local copy.

The Monday edition is full of stories that appeared in the combined R-J/Sun over the weekend.One cityside reporter who was actually beating the competition was a summer intern, Sonya Padgett. Her coverage of North Las Vegas ran circles around the R-J but when she inquired about filling one of the Sun’s many newsroom vacancies on a permanent basis, she got the run-around. Padgett promptly took a job at the R-J as a reporter for the weekly View section.

Reporters with a penchant for politically incorrect enterprise inevitably run into a stone wall at the Sun. Prior to Kelley’s arrival, Brian Greenspun spiked investigative stories on Silver State Disposal Co. and a county official who relinquished her master’s degree amid charges that she plagiarized her thesis. Such front office intervention has continued and the reporters on those stories eventually left, with one, Jeff Schweers, tossing his company-issued pager to Assistant City Editor Dave Clayton and telling him, “Set it on vibrate and shove it up your ass.’’

Scott says that Kelley and Metro were upset when she unearthed a hushed-up story about 47,000 gaming chips taken from the Excalibur hotel-casino. Meantime, the managing editor stood by while Brian Greenspun yanked an account of Assemblyman David Goldwater passing around a revealing picture of fellow lawmaker Sandra Tiffany at the Legislature. (Greenspun did not return phone calls for comment about his role in the newsroom and his assessment of Kelley’s performance thus far.)

Today, Kelley favorites such as Martin Kuz and Stacey Willis get to pick and choose their periodic cover stories while others do the daily grunt work and rewrite the R-J. Sacred cows such as American Nevada Corp. and Cox Cable get favored treatment as Greenspun corporate partners.

And U.S. Sen. Harry Reid continues to be handled with kid gloves now that Ben Grove has been dispatched to Washington. Grove, a former education writer, replaced State News Service, which had provided coverage at a bargain-basement rate of a couple hundred dollars a week. Grove had been hankering for the D.C. billet since his girlfriend took a job on Capitol Hill. And, despite his inexperience with national politics and the higher cost, the Sun obliged.“I just go in and do my job and go home,’’ sighed a long-time city room scribe, who repeatedly pleaded for anonymity.

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