Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Developing Story: Who Owns the LVRJ?

I tend to read a lot of poker and/or gambling news each day, mostly because I myself am often writing about poker, but also thanks to the people I follow on Twitter linking to articles sharing such news on a regular basis.

Among the sites to which I find myself clicking through now and then is the Las Vegas Review-Journal, more often than not because I follow Howard Stutz who covers the gaming industry for the paper, and he’s frequently sharing articles he’s written and other items appearing in the LVRJ.

I’m pretty sure it was through Stutz I learned the news that the paper had been sold a few days ago. Here’s the story he wrote along with Jennifer Robinson reporting on the sale, which is actually the second time this year the paper has changed ownership. The interesting part of the story this time, though, is the fact that the new owners have not yet been identified, only described as “undisclosed financial backers with expertise in the media industry.”

Some who write for the LVRJ (including Stutz) have already begun voicing discomfort over the fact that the new owners are remaining anonymous. All that is known is that the News + Media Capital Group LLC bought the paper, and that they paid a hefty $140 million for the paper, way more than the $102 million price tag it had back in the spring when bought by the New Media Investment Group.

It’s unusual, since most major news outlets -- those that seek to be accepted as trustworthy and non-biased in their reporting, anyway -- are typically more open about who ultimately is responsible for the publication/dissemination of the news they are delivering.

“The new owner’s decision has put Review-Journal staffers in a tough spot,” writes Michael Calderone for the Huffington Post. “They could inadvertently create conflicts of interests by reporting on the undisclosed backers of their businesses. And Review-Journal reporters seeking more openness from government and the business community will have to contend with questions about lack of transparency in their own shop.”

The latter point is just one reason why keeping the owners’ identity hidden can be problematic. Meanwhile the point about writers unknowingly reporting in ways the owners might not desire doesn’t have to be a problem -- at least in theory -- if the new owners were to stay out of the way and let them report as usual.

Indeed, in the LVRJ story about the sale, the CEO of the subsidiary that operates the paper is referred to saying “no changes are planned in the current operations of the newspaper.” And the paper’s publisher is also in there affirming that the sale won’t “change any of the newspaper’s strategic plans for 2016.”

However, apparently this very report on the sale already might be reflecting some editorial influence being exerted by the new owners. Missing from the original story are four short paragraphs which focused on the owners’ not being identified, including a quote from LVRJ Editor Michael Hengel highlighting the omission. Those paragraphs imply underlying ethical concerns with the owners remaining unknown, but while they appeared in the print version and on the original web version of the story, they’re now scrubbed.

With the reporters themselves starting to grumble louder and louder about the situation, now others are speculating about who the new owner might be. Today POLITICO reported outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid indirectly suggesting online gambling opponent, big time GOP donor, and Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson to be the LVRJ’s new owner.

“We have a few rich people in Las Vegas, one of whom is well known, so we’ll see,” Reid is quoted as saying, adding how “he owns newspapers in other places.” Burgess Everett, author of the POLITCO piece, points out that Adelson does own other newspapers in Israel.

Fortune also weighed in just a short while ago with more Adelson-related speculation. This would mark an interesting twist given how the LVRJ -- like other news outlets -- has reported in sometimes critical fashion on Adelson. That the Republicans will be having their last debate of presidential candidates tonight at Adelson’s Venetian perhaps will bring a little extra attention to the situation as well.

Definitely feel for the LVRJ writers caught in the middle here. In any event, I know I’ll be curious to learn more about this story as it develops. And to see how it gets told.

(EDIT [added 12:00 a.m., 12/16/15]: Just saw this new item over at LVRJ addressing increasing speculation about the newspaper’s owner, in particular whether or not Adelson was indeed the purchaser. The article also shares the position of The Society of Professional Journalists as well as many on the LVRJ’s staff that there is “‘no excuse’ for the newspaper’s owners to hide their identities.” Interesting stuff.)

([EDIT [added 6:00 p.m., 12/16/15]: It looks as though Adelson is indeed the new owner of the LVRJ, as Fortune reports, although CNN talked to Adelson who interestingly is denying that he did.)

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