NATION

Las Vegas newspaper staff feels casino giant Sheldon Adelson's tightening grip

When casino mogul Sheldon Adelson quietly bought Nevada's largest newspaper, reporters made it their mission to break the story of their new owner.

Newly energized after years of turnover and turmoil, the news staff at the Las Vegas Review-Journal furiously reported on the sale and — in a front-page editorial — promised readers that they would stand sentry to make sure the paper's stories were fair, balanced and stripped of any possible influence from Adelson's political and business connections.

But that full-tilt burst of self-reporting has now slowed amid a heavier hand from Adelson's appointed leadership, and some suggest, so has the vow of being transparent.

A standing daily feature in the newspaper designed to tell readers that the Review-Journal remained editorially independent of its well-connected owner suddenly disappeared. Stories about Adelson were less frequent, or reduced to news blurbs. And stories about his interest in building an NFL stadium in Vegas — a report that exploded in media elsewhere — have come under close scrutiny.

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For staffers at the Review-Journal, Adelson's presence came into sharper focus last week when Craig Moon, the newspaper's newly appointed publisher, sat down 20 members of his staff for an off-the-record chat. The talk began amiably enough, with pledges to better serve the newspaper's digital and mobile audiences.

Then, Moon reportedly dispensed with the niceties and told those in attendance — mostly reporters and editors — that things were going to change. The first to go was the guarantee of editorial independence on Page 3. There was also a new editor arriving, and concerns that a staff shake-up wasn't far off intensified.

"Moon did tell us there's no hit list," said one newsroom employee, whose account was corroborated by other members of the staff. "Most of the reporters don't believe him."

In response, Moon said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times on Monday that there is no hit list, he has not disciplined any reporters for speaking to the media and he ended the Page 3 disclosure on his own because no other paper follows such a practice.

He said he did not consult with the Adelson family before making that decision.

Moon said no stories had been changed at the behest of Adelson or Las Vegas Sands Corp., his powerful casino company, but all stories concerning a proposed stadium would be reviewed by the publisher.

"The new publisher was interested in reviewing the stories because of their potential importance to [the] community," Moon said in the statement. "The stories all appeared in the paper after publisher review. However, none of the final stories was edited by the publisher."

Yet staffers point to what they see as troubling signs.

A story about a wrongful-termination suit filed by a former Las Vegas Sands employee ran at just two sentences, plus a one-sentence disclosure of Adelson's interests in the Las Vegas Sands and Review-Journal. The newspaper then posted the relevant court documents below the story.

"Basically, we're giving our readers do-it-yourself journalism at this point," said the staffer who attended the meeting with Moon.

Moon said future stories on Adelson would not necessarily be limited to a single paragraph.

"Each story will be judged on its newsworthiness and treated accordingly," he said in response to questions.

"The editor in chief will review with the publisher any story pertaining to the Review-Journal, its employees or the owners, as well as any major story the editor in chief believes is important (e.g., the stadium)."

Another staffer said the NFL stadium story, which emerged in the heated days leading up to the Super Bowl, was held from publication, with changes requested by the publisher. Still, the staffer pointed out that critics of stadium financing had been given space to air their concerns in stories published last week.

But there's still fight in the Vegas paper.

Adelson's longtime nemesis, Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith, apparently still has free rein. In a column published Sunday titled "Desperation Plain to See with Problem Gamblers in Las Vegas," Smith took aim at the seedy side of his new boss' most visible source of income, apparently without editorial interference.

And, Moon said, the understaffed newsroom is being beefed up with new hires.

Reporters seem less willing to be openly critical of Adelson than they were in December when his News + Media Capital Group bought the newspaper, a deal that was bound to invite criticism given his outsized influence in Las Vegas.

"It's not as bad as some want to make it," one staffer said. "I mean, everybody has some bad to them, right? Adelson does too. So, what the hell."

nigel.duara@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 10, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Changes at Vegas paper suggest new owner's hand" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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