The Las Vegas Review-Journal has been sold for a profit, a fact that is in itself remarkable amid print media's declining fortunes. But with the sale comes a mystery: Who bought Nevada's largest newspaper?
The $140-million sale, completed late Thursday, transferred ownership of the paper and smaller weekly newspapers from New Media Investment Group to the similarly-named News + Media Capital Group, which has so far refused to identify its owner.
The lack of disclosure prompted rumors to fly about the Silver State, and even a presidential candidate wondered what was going on at the "R-J," as the paper is often called.
"Just finished hour+ @reviewjournal ed board," Republican Jeb Bush tweeted Monday. "Only q left unanswered — who owns the newspaper?"
The sale doesn't make sense from a business perspective, said Esther Thorson, research director for the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism, but as a vehicle to spread a political message, it's far cheaper than ad time.
"Why else would you buy a newspaper for way more than it's worth?" Thorson said. "But as a political contribution, it's not that much."
Publisher Jason Taylor will stay on and the company will continue to be operated by Gatehouse Media, a subsidiary of New Media Investment Group.
News + Media Capital Group, the new owner, paid seven times the paper's earnings over the last 12 months, spurring rumors of a rich individual making a vanity purchase. The first name that came to mind, said University of Nevada, Las Vegas associate history professor Michael Green, was the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who also owns a newspaper in Israel.
The conservative bent of the paper and its prominence in an early-voting swing state make Adelson or another rich conservative a logical buyer.
"But my immediate thought was, if [Adelson] bought it, he would have told us already, just by dint of the fact that he's been largely an open book," Green said. Adelson representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
If a person or group with political interests has purchased the paper, they are under no obligation to identify themselves before the Nevada Democratic causes, on Feb. 20, or the state's Republican caucuses three days later. Corporations in Delaware do not have to provide a list of their officers until the corporation's annual report, due March 1, is submitted.
New Media Investment Group purchased the paper in March from Stephens Media LLC for $102.5 million among a much larger sale of eight newspapers and 65 weekly papers across seven states. The Review-Journal, which was the only daily sold in the transaction, and five smaller weekly papers, as well as the website lasvegas.com, sold for approximately 37% higher than its March sales price.
The Review-Journal said it had more than 250,000 subscribers in March 2013.
Questions abound about the new company's owner and his, her or their intentions. Nevada is a swing state of 1.4 million registered voters, and the Review-Journal is a powerful voice in its most populous city.
Michael Schroeder, the sole representative of News + Media Capital Group to make public statements so far, did not discuss the company's intentions for the paper, only praising it as a "great publication."
"We believe good journalism is good business," Schroeder said in a statement issued with the sale. He did not return calls or emails from the Los Angeles Times.
The sale has already engendered suspicions of infringement on editorial freedom, when, according to the Huffington Post, Taylor stopped the presses on Thursday night to remove references to questions about the new company's owner and a quote from editor Michael Hengel.
"The questions that were not answered Thursday are 1) Who is behind the new company, and 2) What are their expectations?" Hengel said in the quotes that were removed but did slip into some of the paper's Friday print editions.
Review-Journal reporter Neal Morton tweeted a photo of the print edition and the corresponding online story, which ran with the quotes removed. Hengel and Taylor referred questions about the incident to New Media CEO Michael Reed, who did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
Reporters expressed confusion and dismay at the sale.
"I am personally offended & embarrassed that whoever bought the RJ does not have the guts to say so," wrote reporter Sean Whaley on Twitter on Saturday. He declined to elaborate when contacted by The Times.
According to a Gatehouse employee who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation, employees of Gatehouse were told in a phone call on Thursday night that the sale was complete and that Gatehouse would continue to run the newspaper's operations — although, given the change enacted when Taylor stopped the presses, apparently not with full editorial independence from News + Media Capital Group.
The sale of a newspaper to an owner or organization that refuses to be identified is unprecedented in media history, Thorson said.
"It is surprising that they think it's OK to keep it secret, particularly when they bought it for its influence," Thorson said.
News + Media Capital Group was incorporated as a domestic corporation on Sept. 21 in Delaware. Its contact information links to a contracts servicing company in Wilmington, Del.
The newspaper is the loudest voice in a state that presents little competition besides the Las Vegas Sun, a Greenspun Media Group newspaper that is included within the Review-Journal's print edition.
"You don't have a lot of alternative news voices in print or online," Green said, "and that's one of the reasons I think the R-J still has considerable clout."