New Era for Two Warring Vegas Papers
Some of those Hank Greenspun afflicted during his life have a joke that they tell even now.
At his funeral in July, a crowd of more than 1,200--gamblers, politicians, friends and employees--came to stand in the 100-degree desert sun. Some were there to say farewell, the joke goes, others to make sure he was really dead.
But a month later, Greenspun had the last laugh. The one-time gun smuggler for Israel who ran a newspaper here, called Joe McCarthy a homosexual in print without any proof, sued the state’s most powerful politician for conspiracy and won, and ran a sting operation on the sheriff, showed them he wasn’t quite as dead as they thought.
Hours before he died, it was announced on Aug. 8, Greenspun’s family had signed a deal to keep his flagrant but failing newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun, alive for another 50 years. The Sun would merge business operations with the town’s other paper, the profitable Las Vegas Review Journal, but maintain separate news and editorial staffs.
Greenspun was gone, but his irascible or damnable, crusading or abusive, anything-but-timid newspaper was not.
The agreement still must win federal exemption from antitrust laws. And many believe, if the two papers become partners, that the furious Sun will change its ways, in part because Hank’s son, Brian, a gentler soul than his father, is running it. Brian had to sign over $20 million worth of family stock in the local cable franchise to make the deal and gets just 10% of the papers’ combined profit in return.
But even if the Sun changes, the merger will preserve a competition that once was among the meanest, weirdest, most raucous and--by modern standards--most unethical newspaper wars ever seen.
It was a war, really, of two men, the two papers’ owners, and their two different philosophies of life.
One was Herman “Hank” Greenspun, the Brooklyn-born lawyer who came to Las Vegas in 1946 fresh from the Army hoping to start a race track and who became a celebrated crusader instead.
The other is Donald W. Reynolds, an Oklahoma-bred son of a poor grocery peddler who parlayed $300 into a media company so private that few have heard of it. Yet Donrey (for Don Reynolds) Media Group owns more daily and weekly newspapers around the country than giant Gannett Co.
Carried Gold Cards
And as the owner of every dime’s worth of stock, the reclusive 82-year-old Reynolds, who moves constantly among his seven homes, is one of America’s 55 billionaires.
Between them there was real dislike, honestly felt. In print, Greenspun usually referred to Reynolds as “Uncle Piggy.” Friends say that in private, Reynolds described Greenspun with expletives. In public, he cleaned it up and just called him “Vermin Greenscum.”
Nor was either man accused of running a great newspaper. For years, reporters here carried gold cards that entitled them to free meals and drinks at local hotels, and the papers let their advertising departments influence news coverage.
It was in 1949 that Reynolds bought the Review Journal, then just his third newspaper, and promptly tried to break the unions. The paper that Greenspun would buy a year later and call the Sun was actually a strike paper started by Review Journal printers.
The town was small and wide open, a collection of low-slung stucco buildings, a few casinos and, among the new residents, a mobster named Bugsy Siegel with a vision about a city built on the fantasy of greed.
Reynolds ran his newspaper for the same reason--money. He is “strictly a bottom-line operator,” said former Review Journal General Manager Bill Wright, the top executive at the paper from 1966 to 1981.
In Reynolds’ strategy, the editorial quality of the paper was not a primary concern, and the Review Journal was bland at best, though he always spent money on equipment to get the paper out fast and with a modern look.
Reynolds, who would come to own most of the major media in Nevada and most of the billboards in Las Vegas, is so frugal, employees said, that he has located Donrey’s executive offices in a compound with his home so that he can partly deduct his house as a business expense.
As Las Vegas grew, Wright said Reynolds used the paper as “the cow that has financed his empire,” acquiring tiny papers in places like Arkadelphia, Ark., and Oskaloosa, Iowa. Today, the 135,000-circulation Review Journal is as big as almost all the other Donrey papers combined.
And it is extraordinarily profitable. With revenue of more than $70 million and operating profit of more than $20 million a year, according to insiders, the Review Journal is more successful financially than all but a couple of Las Vegas casinos.
Donrey President Fred Smith denies that the company has little concern for news quality. “We are bottom-line oriented,” he said. “But we know to have a bottom line you have to have a good product.”
In Reynolds, Donrey also had a boss who employees say can be could be brutally abrupt and explosive. He fired his own son from the company, and his general managers call their annual meeting in Lake Tahoe “The Reaming in the Pines.”
If Reynolds owned his paper to make a profit, Greenspun owned his to make trouble.
“For Hank, the idea of the Sun was kicking the hell out of everyone who deserved it,” but “he didn’t have the slightest concept of how a newspaper was produced on a daily basis,” said Bryn Armstrong, executive editor of the Sun from 1963 to 1974.
When the race track plan that brought him to Vegas failed, he tried to start a magazine and then went to work as a publicist for Siegel’s Flamingo hotel. After Siegel was murdered in Los Angeles, Greenspun ran into other unsavory business partners and finally decided to buy the local strike paper from the printers union for $1,000 down.
Before he could start in earnest, he was convicted of smuggling guns to Israel. Greenspun had been recruited by the fledgling nation to run guns through Mexico three years earlier--in violation of American neutrality in the Middle East. The sentence didn’t include jail, however, and Greenspun returned to Las Vegas.
Lived Up to Promise
At the Review Journal, the publisher’s column was called “From Where I Sit.” With characteristic delicacy, Greenspun called his “Where I Stand,” slapped it on Page 1 and promised on day one that he would never be impartial.
He wasn’t kidding.
His first target was Nevada’s most powerful man, Democratic Sen. Patrick McCarran, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, boss of the state political machine, close ally of Joe McCarthy.
“The old buzzard,” Greenspun called him in print, leading a pack of “crawling sniveling jackals.” He warmed up from there, combing the Kefauver hearings for links between McCarran and organized crime, writing column after column for nearly a year.
Finally, McCarran retaliated by ordering the casino owners to pull their advertising from the Sun. Twelve of the 13 casinos complied within two hours.
Greenspun sued the senator and the hotels for conspiracy. Town bookies gave him only 20-to-1 odds. But after Greenspun found a casino secretary who took the call from Washington with the boycott order, the casinos settled. And Greenspun’s career was launched.
Two years later, McCarran, giving a speech in Hawthorne, Nev., uttered the words “Greenspunism must be defeated,” and dropped dead.
By then, however, the Sun had gone on to be one of the first papers to publicly take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who at one point accused Greenspun of being an “ex-communist.”
Greenspun wrote in a style he called “fighting the devil with his own fire.”
It is “common talk,” one Greenspun column read, “that Sen. Joe McCarthy has often engaged in homosexual activities.” Whether Greenspun had any proof was in doubt.
Darling of Liberals
Eventually, a Greenspun column even predicted that McCarthy would be killed. “Huey Long’s death will be serene and peaceful compared with the demise of the sadistic bum from Wisconsin.”
Provoked, McCarthy persuaded the Postmaster General to try to revoke the Sun’s second-class postage rights, alleging that Greenspun was inciting violence. The effort failed, and Greenspun had become a darling of liberals.
Through the years, there were other crusades--helping elect Michael O’Callaghan governor, fighting against atomic waste dumping and against the Internal Revenue Service--all of them, in Greenspun’s mind, in defense of the little guy.
Perhaps the best, though, was the case of Clark County Sheriff Glen Jones and “Roxie’s” motel brothel, an establishment that had operated for years without interference from the law.
When Greenspun accused Jones of being a secret partner in Roxie’s, the sheriff sued for libel. And Greenspun countered with a bit of journalism not taught in any college.
He hired a private investigator to pose as a Mafioso, wired him for sound and sent him off to offer to buy Roxie’s from its legally entangled owner, Roxie Clippinger.
When the fake mobster inquired about “protection” for his investment, Roxie assured him that the good sheriff was on the payroll, a claim verified in other tape-recorded meetings as well.
A 12-part series in the Sun followed, and Jones dropped his libel suit.
As often as not, Greenspun shot from the hip, writing first, gathering his evidence later. Sometimes he was right, and sometimes, even his own editors said, he was not.
But he always believed his cause, said O’Callaghan, now a Sun executive, even if his many enemies say he never did a thing that wasn’t for his own profit.
At every opportunity, he railed against “Uncle Piggy,” and the “knuckleheads” who ran “the little paper down the street,” always in sarcastic prose. When the Reynolds’ paper criticized his business dealings, he called it “a eunuch judging a man’s lovemaking.”
With all this crusading, and with Reynolds’ penny pinching, why did Reynolds ultimately win the war?
First, neither paper was a model of journalistic prestige.
Neither assigned reporters to cover the town’s biggest industry--gaming--or the gaming commission full time until an upstart third paper, the Valley Times, began doing so in the mid-'70s.
Nor did they cover the mob. It was the Chicago Sun-Times that exposed how Jimmy Hoffa used the Teamsters pension fund to bankroll the expansion of Las Vegas in the 1950s.
And in a practice most newspapers would consider dishonest, for years the advertising sections ran the entertainment coverage of the papers--and only those hotels that advertised got stories written about them.
The Review Journal ad department even had a rubber stamp, which it used to mark “OK” those press releases that the news staff could put in the paper, usually unchanged.
Review Journal General Manager David Osborne says the hotels might have “taken advantage” and withheld advertising if the paper hadn’t employed such policies. He says the policy has since been changed, though advertising experts in town disagree.
At the Sun, Brian Greenspun freely admits there is a category of story in his paper called “puff"--which means stories written by the hotels themselves--"if they aren’t advertisers, they have to wait in line for the space for puff.”
Nonetheless, for a time in the 1950s and early 1960s, during Greenspun’s greatest crusades, the Sun was gaining on the Review Journal. By September, 1963, only 7,500 in circulation separated them (the Review Journal led with 35,441 copies).
Then, on the morning of the Nov. 20, fire destroyed the Sun building and presses.
Greenspun managed to continue publishing, for months flying the paper in from California. But delivery was sporadic, often late, and the paper was thin.
By the time the Sun rebuilt, the Review Journal had gained a circulation lead of more than 20,000.
Helped Howard Hughes
Greenspun’s shortcomings as a manager were another problem. The Sun payroll was stocked with relatives, any one of whom--including the telephone operator--could order stories into the paper. Nor did Hank cover the city in any coherent way. He liked to focus on one crusade at a time, didn’t like the idea of regular beats and disdained covering public meetings.
In his later years, many think even Greenspun’s personality and reputation as a crusader waned. Some believe that it began to tarnish when, following a presidential pardon by John F. Kennedy on the smuggling charges, Greenspun ran for governor in 1962 and was soundly beaten in the Republican primary.
Others think the decline started when he met Howard Hughes, who Greenspun helped to buy the Desert Inn upon Hughes’ arrival in Las Vegas in 1966. Over the course of the next four years, Hughes and Greenspun would have complex business dealings, including a $4-million loan to Greenspun at 3% interest and the sale of Greenspun’s TV station to Hughes for another $3.6 million, mostly so Hughes could program the all-night movies he would watch.
By the time Hughes fled Las Vegas for Nassau in 1970, Greenspun had become wealthy, and thereafter, some say, his role as defender of the little guy seemed less credible.
Some critics, such as University of Nevada at Reno journalism Prof. Jake Highton, contend that the Sun might have beaten the Review Journal had Hank not diverted his money into other enterprises. His son counters that it was these outside business that have kept the Sun alive, paying for more than $13 million in losses since 1981.
In any case, it is doubtful that Greenspun’s paper and personality were suited to the battle, even if he had had the money. And by the early 1980s, the Sun had entered a downward spiral. Its readers, Review Journal surveys showed, were mostly older Las Vegans who were dying out. The growing number of new residents read the Review Journal.
Since 1984, the Sun’s share of advertising lineage has dropped to less than 30% from 40% of the market. Daily circulation has dropped to 29% from 37%.
Did the Greenspuns ever consider selling the paper to preserve it? No, says Brian Greenspun. And the two most common rumors in town, that Gannett and Times Mirror Co. were interested in buying, are both false, the companies said.
But Brian Greenspun claims that as early as 1979, his family approached Donrey about a merger. Discussions went nowhere, and in 1985, the Greenspuns tried again, this time ready to offer part of the family cable franchise. Again, Donrey said no.
The last negotiations began in the summer of 1988, after doctors found that Hank had cancer, and by December many of the details were hammered out.
Donrey would get 10% of the local cable company that the Greenspuns owned and an option to buy 35% more, if the Greenspuns could maintain majority share.
Wasn’t as Fun
Even this must have tasted bitter. Years earlier, the Greenspuns had gone to court to keep Donrey out of the cable business on the basis that it already owned one of the local TV stations. Since then, Donrey lost its license for the station after the government found that it had cheated advertisers.
Why accept the offer now? Donrey President Smith adamantly denies that it was because Hank would no longer be on the scene. Rather, he said, the Greenspuns offered more.
Now, Don Reynolds is nearly 83, enfeebled by arthritis and no longer running his company day to day. And Hank is gone, like others who carved Las Vegas from the sand.
Corporations own most of the casinos now, making their big money on slot machines, not high rollers. It isn’t the scent of sin and gangsters that brings the tourists to town anymore.
Hank Greenspun used to curse the changes, his assistant, Ruthe Deskin, said. Running the newspaper wasn’t as fun anymore. He didn’t always like it that his town was growing up.