Monday, June 27, 2005

A precocious postmortem of the Las Vegas Sun: Part IV

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!
My Way or the Highway
Two years of tyranny and turmoil in the Sun’s dysfunctional newsroom
Part 4 of 5
By Ken Ward
(Originally published circa September, 1999)

Bruce Falk, a Kelley hire, got the hell out after less than a year. He blames what he characterizes as the managing editor’s erratic and dictatorial behavior. “He’s a hard man and he’s a hard inconsistent man,’’ says Falk, who has been an editor for 12 years.
On Day 3 of the Kosovo conflict, Kelley called the copy desk an hour before deadline to inform the editors they had been playing the story too small -- even though it had been atop Page One for a week. “This was the first we’d heard there was a problem,’’ Falk says. “We had to scramble to remake the page.’’
The next day, the desk editors were summoned into a meeting with Kelley, who proceeded to unload. Falk recalls Kelley huffing, “‘You’re the dumbest people in the world, You have no sense of history.’ Then he went onto a tangent about graphics and accusing us of blowing them off.’’
The message that Falk took out of that meeting rang loud and clear. “The right way is whatever Kelley thinks that day, and it’s never the same two days in a row.’’ Falk, who quit without a job, now works at the R-J and makes more money.

Mary Manning, a 23-year Sun veteran, says she’s been energized by the new regime. “They’ve got the dead wood out of here now and we’ve got the best editors,’’ she says. These days, the city desk has four editors instead of only two in the pre-Kelley era. Manning, who covers the environment and Yucca Mountain, credits Kelley for boosting salaries and encouraging the development of her beat. “He’s the only editor who’s told me to write long,’’ she enthuses. “I even got (salary) credit for getting my Ph.D.’’
Vowing to “wipe (R-J environmental writer) Keith Rogers off the face of the Earth,’’ Manning epitomizes the kind of rabid loyalty that the Greenspuns reward. And she categorically dismisses the notion that the Sun is merely a stepping stone to the bigtime. As proof, she points to two new metro editors who came from Denver and Washington, D.C.
Yet the chronic churn factor suggests that retention remains a problem. “They do nationwide searches for everything. The philosophy is to get talented people to come and stay but it hasn’t worked,’’ notes a senior reporter who asked that his name not be used.
Says another: “Kelley would hold these monthly staff meetings to talk about ‘The Mission’ of being bigger and better. I wouldn’t know half the people there.’’ And another: “Going to work is like entering a minefield.’’
Disarray was evident to judges of this year’s Nevada Press Association “Better Newspaper Contest,’’ where Sun writers won only two first-places. The paper’s other five first-place finishes were in design and photography (all by photographers who pre-date Kelley’s arrival). By comparison, the R-J won 14 top prizes and the Reno Gazette-Journal garnered 12, including coveted awards for general excellence, community service and freedom of the press.
"There are obviously lots of serious subjects -- growth, ethics, shady business deals, lax regulation -- but there was no depth, no enterprise,’’ he noted. “The content was very shallow.’ The chief jurist in the general excellence category, Seattle Times Managing Editor Alex MacLeod, complimented the Sun’s “modern, cleaner’’ design. Beyond that, however, he didn’t find much to like.
“There are obviously lots of opportunities to write about serious subjects -- growth, ethics, shady business deals, lax regulation -- but there was no depth, no enterprise,’’ he noted. “The content was very shallow.’’ Pointing to a Page One story on political ethics, MacLeod recalled that he and a fellow judge read the article twice. “And we still couldn’t figure out what it was trying to say.’’
“I was very surprised that they couldn’t come up with better examples,’’ MacLeod said, adding that the Sun wasn’t competing in very stellar company. “Of the papers in that (larger circulation) category, it was hard to recognize any as being truly excellent. By the industry’s standards, the entries weren’t up to those standards.’’

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