United States Project

The Review-Journal is looking to hire, and transparency about its ownership is part of the pitch

January 27, 2016

Late last year, the Las Vegas Review-Journal was engulfed in an ownership controversy so bizarre, worrying, and unprecedented that it seemed media observers would run out of superlatives to describe it.

Even now, more than a month after it became clear that the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bought the paper at an inflated price, some questions linger. But as Nevada’s largest daily moves ahead with its day-to-day work, interim editor Glenn Cook is hoping the paper will become known for two other superlatives in the wake of Adelson family ownership: “most transparent” and “most jobs open.”

Cook, a 19-year veteran of the R-J, was the paper’s senior editorial writer until being named interim editor Jan. 6. Since then, he’s been working a steady string of long days, trying to set the paper right, address questions about editorial independence—and find some good journalists to join the newsroom.

“It’s been a very full two weeks on the job,” Cook said in a phone interview last week, after an apology for days of phone tag. “But an awful lot of what I’m dealing with is good stuff.”

He pointed to the flurry of job listings the paper has posted on industry boards since the new year—more than a dozen active listings at a time, with some already filled. The interim editor wouldn’t specify how much the Adelson family has budgeted for the hires. But counting positions that haven’t yet been advertised, he said the paper plans to hire for 31 part- and full-time jobs.

Ten of these are replacements for “very recent departures, or lateral moves,” he said. (With the not-insignificant exception of editor Michael Hengel, none of those departures were prompted by the Adelson purchase, he added.) Others are expansion hires, or moves to restore positions lost in recent years to rounds of retrenchment.

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At least seven of the positions are focused on bringing back the design desk, which the previous owner (and still officially the paper’s manager), GateHouse Media, had slashed as part of a plan to centralize operations in Austin, Texas.

Then there’s the “project team,” as Cook called it, which has also been called an investigative team. It’s been years since the R-J had a managing editor; now the paper is seeking to hire two, one of which will oversee this team. The idea was announced under GateHouse’s ownership, and “we already had candidates” for the team leader, Cook said. The plan is to make that hire and let the editor choose two investigative reporters, one writing coach, and one database reporter.

The posted positions also include a mixed martial-arts videographer, who was recently hired, a copy editor, and a photographer. There’s also a second K-12 education reporter, to help keep tabs on the fifth-largest school district in the country; a features reporter focusing on stories from the Las Vegas Strip—“we wanted a general assignment position that focuses on all the stories that the rest of the features staff can’t get to,” Cook says—and a paid internship covering the Las Vegas 51s, the local minor league baseball team.

Newspaper jobs aren’t easy to come by these days. But will all the turmoil at the paper—a sale cloaked in mystery, an ownership situation that creates scores of potential conflicts, a strange connection to a pseudonymous article that ran across the country, public pressure from corporate management to stop digging in to the story, and more—discourage applicants?

It’s a question on the minds of some in the newsroom, where there is still a good bit of wariness about what is to come.

Education reporter Neal Morton told me one journalist who had seen the job listings contacted him to ask about morale. “The newsroom in general wants to see the positions filled quickly,” Morton wrote in an email, “but we all wonder about the quality of any candidate willing to enter this mess.” (Morton has also engaged in a little dark humor on Twitter about other job options in the Vegas area.)

Others are more optimistic. “It’s an upbeat note after all the melee,” video producer Michael Quine wrote me.

Asked about potential misgivings new reporters might have, Cook said, “We would expect applicants to ask about the recent purchase. Journalists are supposed to be inquisitive and curious… The first thing I do is point to our disclaimer and protocol.”

That’s a reference to a standing disclosure of the paper’s ownership and the Adelsons’ other interests, which appears prominently on the home page and daily in print on Page 3-A. The R-J has also developed a protocol for including disclosures in stories concerning any of Adelson’s many interests: casinos, anti-marijuana campaigns, Internet gambling legislation, and Israel, to name a few. On any given day, Adelson may be at the center of a major story in the paper—like this Jan. 26 article by one of the R-J’s top reporters, Howard Stutz, about a long-running lawsuit involving Adelson’s business dealings in Macau. The story includes an interview with Adelson.

“Right now, there is no daily newspaper in America more transparent about ownership and potential conflicts than the Review-Journal,” Cook says—and probably none with as many job listings either, he adds.

Developing the disclosure and protocol were necessary for a number of reasons. But one of them, Cook acknowledged, was to put the paper in a better position to draw good candidates and keep good reporters at the paper. “That is part of why we did it—to attract and retain ethical and talented journalists,” he says.

Dan Kennedy, an associate journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of the Media Nation blog, is among the observers who has followed the tumult surrounding the Review-Journal. “It does change the story [around the paper]—the policy, and the hiring,” he says.

“These are tough times, and those kinds of steps may make it easier to consider a job at the R-J,” Kennedy adds. “As an applicant, you know it might not end well, but you might still be willing to take a chance.”

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.