Keith Moyer was in his sixth year of teaching journalism at the University of Minnesota when a former Gannett colleague, Craig Moon, called with a proposal: Would he consider becoming editor-in-chief of the Las Vegas Review-Journal?

Ultimately Moyer said yes, but on one condition:

"I needed to meet (Sheldon Adelson and his family) face-to-face," Moyer said. "I did, and they turned out to be very nice people. I said 'I've got to hear from you that you are not going to hold sway (on news coverage).' They assured me not and said that they understood that (no interference) would be for the good of the paper."

Anything else would have been a deal breaker, Moyer said in a phone interview. He added that the discussion was confined to news, not editorials (in which, by choice, he will have no role). "For $140 million, they can have pretty much any opinion they choose."

Talking to Moyer two weeks into his new role, I essentially got a lengthy to-do list.  His assessment is that the Review-Journal operation needs a lot of work.

As for newsroom turmoil after the secretive sale and what looked to be orders to investigate a judge unfriendly to Adelson, Moyer said he's "been doing a lot of listening and watching — I didn't want to come in barking orders... (The best fix for morale) is focusing on news, and let's move on."

More items on his agenda:

  • On potential conflict-of-interest: "We should just cover the new ownership (and its many Las Vegas business interests) like we would anyone else...It depends on the story, but we will disclose the ownership if that's relevant."  However an elaborate 10-point newsroom compact negotiated by previous management is gone. Publisher Moon had earlier decided on his first day to pull a detailed statement about the Adelsons that had run daily in the print edition.

 

  • Moyer will pursue an initiative from GateHouse's six months running the paper — establishing an investigative team with a lead editor and three or four additional reporters. Potential topics would include problems with the schools and government land management. They might also examine the court system and the influence of campaign contributions — "you can go back decades and find that has been an issue." The Adelsons support creating an investigative unit, Moyer said, as part of the path to creating "a top-flight regional newspaper."

 

  • This week, the Review-Journal is bringing back in-house page design and copy editing functions that had been relocated to GateHouse's production center in Austin.

 

  • Moyer said that he also hopes to restore Associated Press service within the next several weeks.  The Review-Journal had dropped AP and was relying on Reuters, whose work Moyer described as "OK but not nearly as broad."

 

  • He expects to hire 25 to 30 newsroom staffers, but that will be spread over a period of months rather than hurried. "We need to hire business writers and rebuild our city desk — especially on weekends."

    Weekends are prime time for Las Vegas visitors — an average of 375,000 on a given day — Moyer said, and the paper should be adding information and features that appeal to that mini-city within the city.

 

  • Moyer said that he also "would like our Web presence to be more vital."  He has already put in capital requests to upgrade some creaky technology and wants to upgrade video, which looks primitive compared to that of the Star Tribune in his former home of Minneapolis.

 

This picture of disrepair is not surprising considering previous owner Stephens Media, whose roots go back to the Donrey family newspapers. Both had a reputation as relentless profit-maximizers, disinclined to invest much in quality journalism. (This is not to denigrate Review-Journal reporters and editors who seemed to do their best under less-than-ideal conditions).

Moyer was reluctant to criticize GateHouse. But for whatever reason, the company seems to have been putting out fires and not doing a lot to fix what had long been broken during its six months of ownership and a short-lived management contract with the Adelsons.

After paying a steep markup to get the paper, the Adelsons indicated to Moyer, he said, that they are willing to invest considerably more in upgrades.

If so, that is likely to be the work of several years — not just weeks or months.