Las Vegas newspaperman tilts at windmills

A publisher is fighting his siblings over ending a joint operating agreement with the city's other paper

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 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, and each sibling $70,000. The family will also own, the paper’s website.

The family may benefit from revenues generated by, 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.

Brian Greenspun, 66, is the son of legendary newspaper magnate Hank Greenspun, a one-time publicist for gangster Bugsy Siegel. Greenspun started the Las Vegas Sun bought the paper that then became the Sun back in 1950. Initially, the Sun did quite well, and through the years the Greenspun family, Hank and Barbara, and their four children, was rolling in money.

Not just from the newspaper. The family invested in casinos, sold a cable company for $1.3 billion, backed lucrative real estate deals, and held onto the Sun, which at one point fiercely competed with the R-J in the kind of old-fashion newspaper war they used to make movies about.

But over the years, the Greenspun’s fortunes changed, especially after the economy imploded in 2009. Hank died in 1989. His wife, Barbara, died 21 years later and now—like many newspaper families—the siblings are squabbling over their paper’s future.

“I watched my parents fight every day to keep this paper alive,” Brian Greenspun said. “Certainly to keep the R-J from having a monopoly. It would not be doing justice to my parents if I gave in to the rest of the family. It’s hard to tell what my siblings feel, if they feel anything. They certainly don’t care about the newspaper.”

Some say it doesn’t matter whether the Sun is printed because it has a healthy Web presence. It publishes, on average, four times more stories online than in the paper, according to Tom Gorman, the Sun’s executive editor.

“For news junkies it is always a sad day when a newspaper folds, but, sadly, the average person in Las Vegas would not notice the Sun’s disappearance,” said Hausch. “Many who read the Sun now do so for the columns from The New York Times and other syndicated copy. They can find that elsewhere.”

Danny Greenspun, 59, says he only reads the Sun online. He says his brother’s suit is based on a false premise that terminating the JOA would end the Sun.

“No one from the family has commented on what happens to the Sun after the deal,” Brian Greenspun said at the SPJ meeting. “Financially we are better off after this deal is done. Should we choose to continue the Sun or not will be a financial decision. It’s not up to Stephens. It’s not up to the Department of Justice.”

Greenspun Media also prints Vegas, Inc ,The Las Vegas Weekly and other publications.

“If the Sun disappears it will be because of a decision made by the Greenspun family, not because the JOA has been dissolved,” said Hausch. “They could turn their Las Vegas Weekly alternative paper into the Weekly Sun and reaffirm a previous commitment to report stories not being told by the R-J or local television news. There are plenty of those.”

JOAs require Justice Department approval to terminate them. The department has been notified but can’t do anything until there is a written agreement between the two parties, and no one is saying when that might be.

“Brian is using the antitrust angle as a way to block dissolving the JOA,” said analyst Morton. “Generally the Justice Department will acquiesce if a paper is really a significant drag on earnings. The Justice Department will probably acquiesce on what the majority of the family wants to do. But it could turn out differently.”

Brian Greenspun wants to keep the paper going. His siblings appear happy to end the JOA.

“Their mother died a few years ago and she was very committed to the paper,” said Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “The question is how committed should the kids be? The paper has always been nearer and dearer to Brian’s heart.”

If the JOA ends, it could mean about 100 reporters and editors are out of a job. Gorman, the Sun’s editor, doesn’t think that will happen.

“Brian has a great passion for preserving and continuing his father’s legacy,” Gorman said. “I can’t imagine a Las Vegas without a Brian Greenspun newsroom operating here.”

Brian claims ending the JOA is a violation of antitrust laws and that the Sun couldn’t operate without the JOA.

Danny Greenspun disputes his brother’s contention that without the print Sun, the family couldn’t afford to keep the website.

“That’s the opposite of the truth,” he said. “We would have more money for the website. We’ve always spent more on our newsroom than the R-J ‘s ($1.3 million) reimbursement. To say the print is keeping the Web alive is false. Greenspun Media has been adding additional funding to the Sun in order to fund the operation of both print and Web.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alicia Shepard is former NPR ombudsman and is training Afghan journalists on corruption reporting for Internews, an NGO that helps to develop local media around the world