January 7, 2016

To say that things are returning to normal at casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal would be a huge stretch. I would contend, though, that this week’s well-chronicled events at the paper represent first steps down that road — and not necessarily tiny ones.

Wednesday afternoon, Glenn Cook, the newspaper’s senior editorial writer, was named interim editor.

The week had started, as logic dictated, by getting the disruptive Michael Schroeder out of the picture. The publisher of two small Connecticut papers was let go as “manager” (i.e frontman) for the company the Adelson family set up to buy the Review-Journal while trying to keep their identity secret — briefly as it turned out.

Schroeder also apologized in print to readers of his New Britain and Bristol papers for a bizarre piece on business courts singling out a Las Vegas judge with whom Adelson has clashed as having potential conflicts of interest favoring campaign donors. The apology was nearly as opaque as the article in question, leaving assorted obvious questions unanswered. But that part of the drama now seems to be basically over for the Review-Journal.

On Monday and Tuesday, GateHouse Media, which continues to manage the paper under a contract with the Adelsons, brought in one of its senior editors, David Butler of the Providence Journal, as an emissary.

In an e-mail, Butler wrote me that he preferred not to comment on the situation in any detail. But he confirmed that his goal was to work for a few days with the staff to lay out guidelines for when and how to disclose Adelson’s ownership in future stories that touch on his political and business interests. Letting frustrated staffers vent to management at the first of two meetings on the guidelines was a secondary purpose.

A first report in POLITICO erroneously said that Butler was becoming interim editor. No, it was a limited assignment, and he has already left town to visit West Coast friends then fly back to Providence.

Naming Cook to the position — a current staffer rather than an outsider — should calm questions about who’s in charge and de-escalate the all-but-open conflicts between Review-Journal’s owners and managers and its journalists.

All this leaves unresolved the big question going forward: how, if at all, will Adelson and his family influence what goes into the paper, or what is not covered.

My guess is that they will steer clear, at least in the near future, of meddling on the news side. That is what Adelson has said in several published statements in the Review-Journal and in an interview he gave to the Macau Daily Times (home to a big part of his Sands casino operations).

A good model would be John Henry’s Boston Globe, which continues to cover John Henry’s Boston Red Sox the same as it ever did — including front-page columns denouncing management decisions that have led to two consecutive last-place division finishes.

On the other hand, I would be surprised if the Adelsons refrain from endorsing a favorite candidate in the February 23 Nevada Republican primary or pushing for a pet state and local cause or two in editorials. (As Adelson noted in the Macau interview, the paper’s opinion page, under Cook, already leans conservative and Republican).

A little diplomacy wouldn’t hurt. At the right time a member of the Adelson family needs to show up in the newsroom. GateHouse managers could further engage questions and concerns — as publisher Jason Taylor did Wednesday approving the proposed disclosure guidelines.

At heart, though, this is a case of Nixon Attorney General John MItchell’s famous Watergate-era quip — forget what we say, watch what we do. The New York Times and other national media have already served notice they will be paying attention intensely. Any whiff of a conflict of interest — as well as otherwise routine staff additions and departures — will be held up to scrutiny.

I would add two more pieces of context, possibly useful for watching the next chapters unfold, that I haven’t seen in most accounts.

I came across an earlier e-mail from James DeHaven, one of the Review-Journal team on the Adelson story, confirming what I had heard elsewhere — that GateHouse is setting up a five-person Nevada investigative team at the paper, modeled on the Globe’s now-famous Spotlight unit.

That’s in process — nothing published yet. But it wouldn’t be odd at all if one of their targets is possible corruption of judges — elected and taking big donations to hold office. That’s been a huge running story in the state for years, as evidenced by this July 2015 report from Nevada Public Radio.

Also, as a business, the Review-Journal was already in transition before the sale to Adelson. GateHouse took control of the paper last April. Taylor in his early 40s, is the third publisher in that period, recruited from Gannett after the well-traveled Jim Hopson filled in on a interim basis for a couple of months. Former editor Mike Hengel, who accepted a buyout in December, was a holdover from former owners Stephens Media.

So the stage may have been set for lots of damage to control.

Stephanie Grimes, the young Review-Journal deputy editor for features, who live-tweeted the two meetings and Wednesday’s announcement, e-mailed me an explanation of why she broke with keep-it-in-the-room protocol and did so. I’ll give her the last word:

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.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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