This city’s two daily newspapers have been battering each other for more than half a century -- chasing the same stories, fighting over the best journalists and slinging published insults in the particularly plain-spoken manner that Las Vegans seem to love.
So it represented a unique break with tradition last October when an accord launched the joint delivery of the two papers -- the hard news, Libertarian-leaning, advertising-fat Las Vegas Review-Journal wrapped each morning around the feature-oriented, politically liberal, financially struggling Las Vegas Sun.
Economic necessity forced the two papers into a single bundle of newsprint. But if the first five months of joint delivery are any indication, hard feelings and rival views of this booming city will live on. And journalistic quality, often suspect, just might get a boost.
“I just wish it weren’t in our newspaper,” Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith said of the Sun. “If you get beat by them, it’s right there, in your face. And if you beat them on a story, so what? You just beat the insert.”
Jon Ralston, a television and newsletter commentator who writes a column for the Sun, retorts that the long-dominant R-J has done little to improve coverage of a region that has more than doubled in population. “The morning paper,” he declared in his column, “has grown fat, lazy and arrogant.”
The finger-in-your-eye tone of the feud belies the serious issues at stake for the papers and, especially, residents of Southern Nevada. The region’s population now tops 1.8 million, and new construction creeps ever-farther into the desert and chocolate-colored hills -- creating wrenching pressure for more water, electricity, roads and schools.
Steve Sebelius, who worked for both papers before becoming editor of the city’s alternative City Life weekly, said both dailies need to raise their games. “We need a lot more eyes and a lot more experienced people than we have now watching all this stuff that is changing,” Sebelius said, “and to look out for the citizens and the taxpayers.”
The residual wattage powering the Las Vegas newspaper feud comes as little surprise to locals, given the neon fury in which it was born.
Donald W. Reynolds was already a small-time newspaper owner in Oklahoma and Arkansas when he arrived in Las Vegas and bought the paper that would become the flagship in a billion-dollar empire. He renamed it the Review-Journal. A year later, in 1950, Reynolds was fighting with his union printers when they decided to launch a renegade publication. Another relative newcomer, Herman “Hank” Greenspun, bought the upstart (with $1,000 down) and named it the Sun.
The two newspapermen would find much to loathe in each other in the years to come.
In his regular column, Greenspun routinely depicted Reynolds as the parsimonious “Uncle Piggy.” Reynolds called his rival “Vermin Greenscum” and lashed out at what he said were his competitor’s ample business conflicts. Greenspun volleyed back that Reynolds’ critique was like “a eunuch judging a man’s lovemaking.”
The reclusive Reynolds and the bombastic Greenspun waged war not just on behalf of their papers but sometimes for their much larger business empires. Reynolds would become the billionaire owner of billboard companies, cable television franchises and more than 50 newspapers around the nation. Greenspun’s empire centered in Las Vegas, including cable television and the massive Green Valley residential development.
Both men died more than a decade ago, but their competition lives on.
Sherman Frederick, who worked his way up from reporting intern to publisher of the Review-Journal over 30 years, said the Sun’s willingness to sign up for the joint distribution deal signaled his paper’s hard-earned victory.
“The Review-Journal won because it was the better newspaper,” Frederick said, “top to bottom, owner to pressman to beat reporter.”
Greenspun’s son, Brian, 59, assumed management of the newspaper after his father died in 1989. Rather than a victory for the Review-Journal, he describes the joint distribution deal as a tremendous opportunity for the scrappy underdog.
“The great irony is that the people who tried to destroy my dad for the last 40 years of his life are the people who his paper is joined to, at the hip, for the next 30-plus years,” Greenspun said. “And that makes the Sun a better, more impactful newspaper.”
Cat and canary
Two-newspaper towns have become increasingly rare, and Las Vegas appeared to be headed toward a single publication. But neither side has been willing to sell out to the other.
Instead, the papers agreed in 1989 to a joint operating agreement that combined advertising and production operations.
Despite the collaboration, the Sun’s circulation plummeted like many other afternoon-delivery dailies, reaching a low of 24,154 last year. Even with the region’s 116% population growth from 1990 to 2004, the dominant Review-Journal added just 22% more circulation, to 165,208.
Looking for additional ways to cut costs, Greenspun and Frederick agreed last summer that the papers should be packaged together. The arrangement began on the first Sunday in October, with readers greeted by a “Las Vegas Review-Journal” nameplate across the top of the front page, followed by the paper’s Nevada news section. Instead of flipping immediately to Sports, they now receive a third section that is the Las Vegas Sun.
The smaller paper with the brilliant orange logo consists of a single section of eight to 12 pages, usually with two or three stories on the front page, an abundance of columnists and editorials inside, and a back page devoted to sports or features.
Some journalists at the bigger Review-Journal bridled at giving the smaller paper new life, derisively referring to the competition as “the insert” or the “Sunsert.”
A few readers felt a certain incongruity in the new combination as well -- a bit like finding Magic Johnson suddenly cloaked in Boston Celtics green.
Assessing the future of the new hybrid, one local commentator resurrected A.J. Liebling’s old saw: A big newspaper merges with a small one like a cat merges with a canary. But operators of the Sun prefer to view their bird as something more like the phoenix -- rising from near-death into a journalistic renaissance.
The Sun’s plan is to cede most routine news coverage to the bigger paper. It will attempt, instead, to publish a kind of daily magazine, filled with features, analysis, investigations and a raft of columnists.
“There is a chance here to build something that doesn’t exist anywhere in American journalism,” said Drex Heikes, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times magazine, who recently signed on as a deputy managing editor at the Sun. “We have been freed from some news-gathering obligations, and we are trying to add context and meaning, do more enterprise reporting and elevate the writing.”
Two other Los Angeles Times veterans -- reporter turned columnist Tom Gorman and design director Bill Gaspard -- also have joined the paper, which plans to add six reporters in its news department alone.
In recent weeks, the formula has seen a few successes -- an early report on architect Frank Gehry’s design for a local hospital, a blow-by-blow account of the events that led to University of Nevada, Las Vegas President Carol Harter losing her job and an analysis of the Homeland Security agency’s decision to leave Las Vegas off a list of top terrorist targets.
Some observers believe that to increase its credibility, the Sun must do more to assure its coverage appears independent of the Greenspun family’s many economic interests.
The paper has gotten into the habit of notifying readers when it covers Greenspun holdings, which include housing developments, publishing and casinos. But that was not enough to stave off charges of cronyism last month, when the Sun ran two front-page stories and a column, saying the city got a good deal when it agreed to allow a developer to plow under the Royal Links Golf Club to make way for 1,200 homes.
The Sun said it based its conclusions on an analysis by an independent firm of the deal between the city and Bill Walters, a Greenspun friend and onetime business partner. The Review-Journal, in contrast, has repeatedly described the home proposal as a sweetheart deal for Walters that hurts taxpayers.
Sun Managing Editor Michael J. Kelley -- a onetime political writer for the Kansas City Star and former editor of a suburban Chicago daily -- acknowledged that “it would make my life way easier if the company only owned the Sun.” But he argued that the paper would be committing a greater error if it backed away from writing about business deals of major local import just because Greenspun or his allies are involved.
The Review-Journal, in contrast, is more likely to be criticized for what it doesn’t cover than what it does. Several current and former employees said the R-J staff is stretched too thin in the ever-growing city. Even the Review-Journal’s Smith concedes the need for improvement.
“We do a few things really well, and we are C students in a lot of areas,” said the veteran columnist. “That is the huge challenge for the Review-Journal: How to grow into those clothes and become a legitimate metropolitan daily.”
Publisher Frederick said he had enough staff, in part because the paper did not have to cover multiple cities and school districts, as do papers in many metropolitan areas.
In a concession to the Sun’s increasing focus on in-depth coverage, the Review-Journal recently added a five-person special projects team. Among its first products were recent stories that analyzed soaring salaries being paid to the region’s police officers.
“I will be damned if I am going to let them get the upper hand on us journalistically,” Frederick recently declared from the Review-Journal’s offices on the city’s downtrodden westside.
Miles south and east in suburban Henderson, where his office overlooks sprawling suburbs his family helped build, Sun President and Editor Brian Greenspun retorts: “They care more about making money than they do about producing a great newspaper that’s in the community interest.”
Hal Rothman, a history professor at UNLV, who writes a column for the Sun, likes what he has seen of the combined publication.
“In the last five months,” Rothman said, “it’s become a much more vibrant newspaper town.”