The Las Vegas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists held a contentious panel mid-month to examine the latest flap in the newspaper war between the dominant Review-Journal and the beleaguered Las Vegas Sun.
Initially, a well-known R-J columnist was to appear with a local newspaper historian at the panel. But then SPJ invited Brian Greenspun, the Sun’s publisher. This was problematic since, in August, Greenspun sued the R-J’s owner, Stephens Media. He claims Stephens is illegally conspiring with his siblings to end the 24-year-old joint operating agreement between the two papers.
After Greenspun accepted, the columnist declined, saying his paper wouldn’t let him come.
The panel turned out to be a free-for-all. Some questioned the Sun’s relevance. Greenspun claimed the Sun played a vital role in ending the government shutdown. A former Sun reporter attacked him for taking her off a story, and Danny Greenspun said journalists need to factcheck his brother.
“The Saturday SPJ meeting was like a reality television show with the Greenspun brothers squaring off and local news legends in the community challenging Brian Greenspun,” said Mary Hausch, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and herself a local legend as a past R-J managing editor. “Definitely best ever SPJ meeting.”
Newspaper wars, 2013. This one is small, but it portends the future of a two-paper town for Las Vegas, because the liberal Sun and the conservative/libertarian R-J share a one-of-a-kind joint operating agreement.
Everyday, an eight to 12-page Sun-written section is inserted into the R-J and distributed to 252,000 subscribers. Most people wouldn’t read the Sun otherwise; by 2005, it had fewer than 30,000 subscribers.
There are technically only 6 joint operating agreements left, according to newspaper analyst John Morton. Only one—between the Salt Lake City Tribune and the Mormon-owned Deseret News—remains strong. That arrangement was updated Monday to keep the digital businesses for the two papers separate.
Other JOAs are in Charleston, WV, Detroit, York, PA, and Fort Wayne, ID. The JOA in Seattle between the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times, valid until 2016, is only nominal at this point, since the P-I folded its print edition. Morton said there have been 28 JOAs, though not all at the same time. JOAs allow competing newspapers to continue publishing by sharing all costs except for editorial resources.
Like many JOAs, the two papers in Las Vegas share advertising, printing, and distribution but maintain separate editorial staffs. Generally, it’s a burden on the bigger, more profitable paper. Normally that would be an anti-trust violation, but the 1970 Newspaper Preservation Act allows it to ensure that city has two independent editorial voices.
The proposed deal to end the JOA is complicated. Right now the Greenspuns lease the URL lasvegas.com from Stephens for $2.5 million a year. That URL is home to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which books shows, hotels and transportation. If the Greenspuns agree to dissolve the JOA, Stephens will give the family lasvegas.com, and each sibling $70,000. The family will also own www.lasvegassun.com, the paper’s website.
The family may benefit from revenues generated by lasvegas.com, but the Sun would no longer get the roughly $1.3 million Stephens Media gives it each year. At one time, Stephens gave the family as much as $12 million in profit-sharing.
Stephens initially suggested a five-year non-compete clause, but realized that would give Brian Greenspun ammunition and eliminated it.
Some may consider Las Vegas publisher Brian Greenspun to be a Don Quixote of the newspaper business. He’s fighting an uphill battle against his siblings and a well-financed Stephens Media to save the JOA.
Last summer, Danny Greenspun, Susan Greenspun Fine, and Janie Greenspun Gale approached Stephens about ending the JOA, according to Stephen’s attorney Don Campbell. Then the four siblings voted on whether to end the JOA, which ends in 2040. In a 3 to 1 vote, they decided to dissolve the decades-old agreement. Only Brian objected. He went to court. But he didn’t sue his siblings, he sued Stephens for trying to break the JOA.
Brian Greenspun is spending his own money fighting Stephens. But he’s not having an easy time. One of his attorneys, Lief Reid (son of Greenspun’s close friend, Sen. Harry Reid) asked to be taken off the case and won’t say why. On October 10, the company’s low-powered TV station, KTUD, went off the air after nearly three years in bankruptcy. Earlier this year, Brian Greenspun’s sister, Susan Greenspun Fine, sued him over a $2 million debt, which they’ve since settled.