With Sheldon Adelson reports, the Las Vegas Review-Journal mystery ownership situation gets even stranger

AP file photo

This post has been updated to reflect the Review-Journal’s article about the role played by Adelson’s son-in-law and the note from the Adelson family.

As reporters and photographers at the Las Vegas Review-Journal slid into high gear this week to cover the Republican presidential candidates in town for a nationally televised debate, a determined core group of staffers vowed to uncover the facts behind a story closer to home: who had just bought their newspaper.

“We are actively trying to figure this out,” said one reporter, who spoke to CJR Tuesday on condition of anonymity. “This is our own backyard,” the reporter added, saying that solving the mystery amounts to a test of the newsroom’s reporting mettle—“a proving ground.”

Wednesday afternoon, an answer to the question appeared to come from another publication. Fortune’s Dan Primack, citing multiple unidentified sources, reported that the billionaire casino magnate and conservative political donor Sheldon Adelson was the “primary buyer” in the paper’s sale last week. The report seemed to validate speculation that had been floating in media circles since news of the deal broke. The Review-Journal itself had reported details that hinted at an Adelson connection in a front-page article Wednesday.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

That still left work to do on the story, though. Less than two hours after the Fortune report went live, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that Adelson had told him in an interview Tuesday he had “no personal interest” in the Review-Journal–a statement that, depending on how you parsed it, could be in conflict with the Fortune post.

Then, on Wednesday night, the Review-Journal itself reported in a story on its website that Adelson was the buyer—also relying on unidentified sources, but offering the fullest account to date. Full confirmation finally appeared in Thursday’s print edition, in a note from the Adelson family that appeared next to that article on Page 2. On Thursday morning, that note could be found online only in the paper’s e-edition—the latest strange development in this story.

“It was always our intention to publicly announce our ownership of the R-J,” the note says, adding, “with each of the Republican candidates for president and the national media descending on Las Vegas for the year’s final debate, we did not want an announcement to distract from the important role Nevada continues to play in the 2016 presidential election.”

The note also includes this anodyne explanation for the purchase, made at what has been widely seen as an overvalued price: “We believe in this community and want to help make Las Vegas an even greater place to live.”

The Review-Journal article, by James DeHaven, Howard Stutz, and Jennifer Robison, went into greater detail:

The son-in-law of billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson arranged the $140 million purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Adelson’s behalf, sources confirmed Wednesday.

Patrick Dumont, who is listed on the website of Las Vegas Sands Corp. as the company’s senior vice president of finance and strategy, put together the deal at the behest of his father-in-law, the chairman and CEO of the casino operator.

When the Review-Journal tried to reach Dumont at his home, his wife “hung up before answering a reporter’s questions,” the paper added.

The Adelson reports are just the latest bizarre twist in a week that appears without parallel in the contemporary history of major metro papers. Questions about the paper’s ownership status began at a company-wide meeting last Thursday. Several staff members recalled the upbeat tone of the gathering, as publisher Jason Taylor told more than 100 staffers how well things were going—circulation was up, a new project involving a team of five investigative reporters was progressing. Then he announced that the paper had been sold for the second time in a year.

This time, the price was $140 million, or around $38 million more than New Media Investment Group, the corporate parent of GateHouse Media, had paid to Stephens Media in March as part of a deal that included additional Stephens assets. In a press release, GateHouse reported an estimated 69 percent gain on the transaction, and said it would continue to manage the Review-Journal on behalf of its new owner. 

Staffers were told that a company named News + Media Capital Group LLC was behind the latest purchase, but not who is providing the money behind the corporation, which was only registered on Sept. 21 in Delaware. The only person named in the company’s filings is Michael Schroeder, a newspaper executive who also runs Central Connecticut Communications, which operates the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press.

 

Curiously, this is not the first time Schroeder has been linked to a newspaper deal involving an unidentified investor. At the close of 2008, he was involved in a deal to purchase the struggling New Britain and Bristol, Connecticut, papers from the Journal Register Co. An article about the transaction a week later in the Republican-American, another Connecticut paper, reported that Schroeder, who was introduced as the papers’ new owner at a press conference, had learned of the sale opportunity from an “investor friend,” and included these lines: “[Schroeder] repeatedly declined to name the investor, but described him as a ‘friend’ who wants to remain a silent partner. Details of the deal, including the sale price, were not disclosed.” 

In media circles, the situation in Las Vegas quickly prompted puzzlement, outrage, and a growing chorus of national coverage. The Society for Professional Journalists on Tuesday called upon the newspaper’s buyers to come clean, following a Twitter campaign by more than a dozen Review-Journal journalists that highlighted links to the SPJ code of ethics—particularly a section that calls on media to be “accountable and transparent.” 

Even politicians weighed in. After a Monday meeting with the paper’s editorial board, GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush tweeted, “Only q left unanswered – who owns the newspaper?” And on Wednesday, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas), speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives, called on ownership to come forward. “It’s time for the new owners to take off their mask and prove they have nothing to hide,” Titus said. 

The Review-Journal’s editorial page also addressed the issue in an editorial for Wednesday’s print edition. Ostensibly focused on the lack of transparency in negotiations for a new teachers’ contract for Clark County schools, the editorial pauses midway to ask, “Does the Review-Journal have the credibility to advocate for such openness?” Its answer: “Not so much anymore.”

That public acknowledgment of the situation, and the Review-Journal’s reporting to advance the story, marked an apparent reversal from last week, when Taylor, the publisher, reportedly ordered that concerns about the mystery owner be removed from an article (Taylor referred CJR’s queries for this story to Michael E. Reed, CEO of New Media Investment Group. Reed did not respond to requests for comment. Calls to the Connecticut office of Schroeder, of News + Media, also went unanswered. )

In an interview before the Adelson reports broke, Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said there was “considerable irony in a Las Vegas newspaper having anonymous owners,” given that the city’s emblematic industry, gambling, was once run by mobsters who hired businessmen with clean records to represent them.

“Once we had frontmen for gangsters,” he said. “Now we have frontmen for newspaper owners.”

Green reprised several of the head-scratching aspects of the situation: Why would a buyer pay such an apparent premium? Why would the paper be sold twice in such a short timeframe? And why now—with the GOP debate in town, and the February caucuses for each party approaching? 

All the while, speculation swirled about Adelson, a politically active billionaire known for his hawkish views on Israel who has a history of suing journalists, including those from Las Vegas. (Though he owns an Israeli newspaper, Adelson has said, “I don’t like journalism.”) In 2013, John L. Smith, a Review-Journal columnist, wrote in The Daily Beast that Adelson had “sued me into bankruptcy” over a brief passage in a book.

Even with the ownership mystery now resolved, plenty of other questions remain. Among them: Will Adelson attempt to influence the paper’s coverage, not just of the 2016 presidential election, but also, as one reporter noted in a message to me late Wednesday, “of the gaming industry, or any court case involving (him) and his interests?”  

At the least, this week’s events have borne out what Green, the historian, said about the case: “We do weird very well here in Las Vegas.” 

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

Timothy Pratt is a journalist based in the Atlanta area. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and many other publications. He also lived in Las Vegas and worked for the Las Vegas Sun from 2001-2009.