Why I’m out at the Las Vegas Review-Journal
Improve the lives of Southern Nevadans by building a stronger community through information, insights and inspiration. — Las Vegas Review-Journal mission statement
In the five months since the Las Vegas Review-Journal was sold to the family of Sheldon Adelson for an obscene amount of money, I’ve watched my colleagues put their jobs on the line time and again in the name of journalistic integrity.
The RJ’s newsroom is filled with people I would have gone to battle for, except they were more than capable of taking care of themselves. I had nothing to do with our sale coverage; it was reporters Jennifer Robison and Howard Stutz, who never stopped trying to answer questions about our new owners, even though they knew that in becoming the faces of our coverage, who were putting themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position.
And it was journalists like Deputy Editor Jim Wright and Editor Mike Hengel, who kept fighting to get these stories into print and online regardless of the consequences. For that, Mike ultimately paid the price.
And journalists like those you’ll find throughout the rest of the newsroom, who have stood up to unethical practices in the organization through tiny acts of rebellion that still could have lost them their jobs: tweeting, Facebooking, hanging the code of ethics outside their cubicle. I’m proud to have worked with every one of them.
The time has come to move on. The choice was made for me.
For most of winter, I seriously considered leaving the RJ, not because I actually wanted to but because I couldn’t reconcile my idea of what a newspaper should be — with what any responsible media outlet should be — with what our new owners (and current management) seemed to expect us to be.
There were a few weeks during which it felt as if the newsroom was engaging in open warfare with management. As reporters continued to dig for details about the Sheldon Adelson, the sale, News + Media Capital Group LLC and Michael Schroeder, the mysterious manager sent to represent the newly formed company, rumors circulated around the newsroom: Important details had been cut, stories had been killed and reporters had been told to calm down on the coverage. We felt paranoid, communicating in whispers and texts about the latest rumors lest we were overheard by — well, we didn’t know.
I found myself involved without intending to become so: I live-tweeted an internal meeting with a GateHouse representative during which we had a tense discussion about the future of Review-Journal transparency.
Management was unhappy with that decision, to put it mildly, contrasting with the mood in the newsroom after the fact. But this is what I told Poynter’s Rick Edmonds a few days later:
If we are going to begin rebuilding the public’s trust, we have to be transparent about our processes beginning immediately. Hiding behind closed doors — even doors that are traditionally closed to the public — is only going to hurt us at this point and make doing our jobs that much more difficult in the future.
I walked back into the newsroom to the reality that I could find myself without a job, and soon. But I didn’t regret my choice. I still don’t. I firmly believe that had that meeting not been made public, our newsroom (and by extension, our readers) would have been in a worse position after the fact than we find ourselves in now. The level of national scrutiny that followed that meeting was too great to allow management to make many wrong moves afterward. I would do it again if I found myself in the same circumstances.
Once we had the disclosure agreements in place and the shock of Editor Mike Hengel leaving started to wear off, things seemed to calm down. It felt as though a degree of normalcy were returning to the RJ newsroom.
Our editor had gone down fighting for us (and we couldn’t post the story that was justified). We knew his interim replacement to be a solid choice. We still had dedicated reporters producing strong journalism and we were hiring left and right. Contrary to most national reports, many of our new positions had been approved before the Adelsons purchased the paper. We seemed to be on the right track, or at least an OK one.
I didn’t believe we’d completely moved past the controversy, but I started to think maybe I could hang on longer than I’d planned to. After all, as much as I wanted to leave the RJ, I didn’t want to actually leave the RJ.
On Jan. 28,we got a new publisher, Craig Moon, and heard the new editor would follow soon. I wasn’t sure what to make of Moon, an industry veteran who had worked with at least a couple people with our newsroom at other papers. I was too jaded by then to believe anything anyone told me. I decided to observe from a distance and see what happened.
On Feb. 5, we finally got a new editor, Keith Moyer. But the announcement was clouded by a Politico story by Ken Doctor that had been posted the day before: “Sheldon Adelson tightens grip on Review-Journal.”
A new publisher has appeared overnight at the paper, a new editor will be installed as soon as Friday, and, sources tell me, stories involving new owner Sheldon Adelson are being reviewed, changed or killed almost daily.
Further, the newsroom is abuzz with word of a list of a half a dozen or so journalists whose work has rubbed Adelson the wrong way over the years, and who may soon be targeted for departure in what one insider describes as a “house-cleaning.”
We had been speculating for weeks who would be the first editorial employees forced out in the Adelson era. I don’t know how many stories have been killed or simply strategically edited since the new publisher came on board, but I know I have a problem with the possibility. Take a look at this story, posted online Feb. 4:
This motion was filed Monday in Clark County District Court by attorneys representing Steven C. Jacobs, a party in a…www.reviewjournal.com
It’s one paragraph. No context. No background. Nothing. It’s there because we’ve been following the Las Vegas Sands case for years; it’s not there, it’s safe to say, because it might complicate things for our new owners.
I didn’t want any part of that. I was never personally asked to kill a story (or, more likely in my department, to post a favorable story), but I didn’t want to work somewhere where I was constantly asking myself what shady practice I’m going to find out about next.
The reigns tightened on the features department around the time beloved columnist John L. Smith resigned after management banned him from writing about Adelson or Steve Wynn. Any of our features columns that mentioned the proposed partially publicly funded stadium in Las Vegas had to go through management, often leading us to miss our deadline not because we were slacking, but because they made it impossible to do our jobs. But we were the ones who took the heat for it.
And we weren’t even the ones dealing with the bulk of stories management would have found problematic. Props to City editor Jim Wright for managing to stand by his principles while dealing with management for the past five months.
Last week during an editors meeting, Keith Moyer told us “my job is hard enough without reporters stabbing me in the back” and threatened to fire people he didn’t feel were loyal to the RJ. I’m an obvious, high-profile pick to make an example of, but it wouldn’t be fair of me to blame all of this on my “disloyalty” to the RJ.
I’ve known this was coming from day one. A hyper-conservative middle-aged white man walks into a newsroom and finds a 26-year-old mixed-race woman in charge of an entire department? The humanity! Keith never made me feel welcome in his newsroom and made it clear in every conversation that he didn’t trust me. It was only a matter of time before he pulled the trigger. And yes, absolutely, it’s possible he just didn’t like me for the job and wanted to rely on experience rather than potential. But the timing is off, and I’ve had measurable success as features editor. So I suspect my undoing was that I made it very clear when I disagreed with something that was happening in the newsroom.
I’m not going to miss Keith, or Craig, or anyone else in management at the RJ. And I’m sure they won’t miss me. But I’m going to miss my team. They’re some of the most talented reporters in the business, but treated like scum by the company. They’re brilliant and they deserve better. I did my best to fight for them every chance I got in my eight months working alongside them in the trenches.
And I’m going to miss the rest of the newsroom, where many of my best friends — my family — work. But life changes.
I believe in the power of journalism and I believe in the great reporters in the RJ newsroom — including on my own team. But as much as I love the idea of the Review-Journal, my trust in the company as an institution has died a slow death over the past five months. Its management has failed on too many occasions to live up to the standards we so rigidly hold others to on a regular basis.
I wanted to believe we could overcome this. I wanted to believe the newsroom’s principled stand could be enough to overcome the forces from above that threatened to do us in. But I think after nearly half a year, the RJ has to face the facts: The newspaper is bleeding talent left and right. It’s losing its best reporters week in and week out, and it won’t be long until everyone in a position of power is just a yes-man for the publisher. I wouldn’t have chosen to leave like this, but I suppose it’s better this way. I have no regrets.