Sunday, July 03, 2005

A precocious postmortem of the Las Vegas Sun: Part V

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

An anal-retentive desire to remain anonymous and the failure to return phone calls or e-mail usually raise red flags when done by bureaucrats. Sun staffers tell of a newsroom atmosphere that would make Kafka blush. Furtively referring to the buzz over this story, more than one source told this writer that "Jobs are at stake.'' "I'm convinced they (management) go through e-mail and that they tap phones,'' says a former reporter. The Sun denies tapping phones, but issued a statement to employees declaring that all e-mail is property of the company. And workers at all levels are discouraged from speaking with outsiders about the paper.

"The stock answer is 'Don't say anything,''' one top editor relates. This editor said he didn't even know about Zekan's dismissal until days after it happened. "Unfortunately, (Kelley) is only encouraging more rumors by not talking,'' this editor says. The code of silence extends to the Letters to the Editor column, with Kelley upholding the Sun tradition of killing submissions overly critical of the paper's positions and decisions. Sticking by his no-comment pledge, the managing editor busies himself rearranging deck chairs on this journalistic Titanic. Amid sinking circulation, Kelley has ordered up freshly designed business cards and employee badges. This followed the purchase of new desks, removal of a newsroom wall and the alphabetization of mail boxes.
Then there's Las Vegas 1, the Greenspun's news channel. In corporate parlance, it's a synergistic effort that taps into print reporters' expertise. The company also claims the TV exposure is boosting circulation -- though the numbers point in the opposite direction.
As reporters feed the insatiable electronic maw for no additional compensation, the day may be coming when writers will be expected to carry video cameras as well. It all reflects a "parts is parts'' mentality by the front-office.

But, hey, it's not like things aren't happening. The Sun did hire a perky $40,000 "liaison'' to route stories from the Sun to Las Vegas 1. Of course, that money could have gone toward hiring another reporter to cover actual news.

Alas, cocooned in a joint operating agreement, the Sun doesn't really have to worry about competing. As Vice President Daniel Greenspun has often said, "It doesn't matter if we have just one subscriber.'' Or as his fellow tech-meisters at the paper's website are fond of saying, "Print is dead.'

Such glibness is clever, but it doesn't exactly bolster morale or inspire confidence in the future of the Sun. "It's all superficial stuff and it's sad,'' says Jeri Anderson, a longtime newsroom clerk who walked off the job one morning. "People were being pitted against each other. It got to the point that I was dreading coming to work,'' she said.
The Hell you say.