Las Vegas --
When Craig Moon stepped down as publisher of USA TODAY in 2009, he wasn't done with the newspaper business. While the industry was under siege in the digital era, Moon wanted to show it was still possible “to take a daily newspaper and make it a growth business," not with the punishing cuts that were ravaging the business but with new revenue sources.
A couple of deals didn't work out, and Moon bought a handful of small newspapers in North Carolina. But his big chance emerged early last year when he was offered another job as publisher by a billionaire. And not just any billionaire -- Sheldon Adelson, Las Vegas casino magnate, major national Republican donor and one of the nation's richest men.
Adelson, perhaps Nevada's biggest player, purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December 2015. The paper is the dominant news outlet in a critical swing state that Hillary Clinton won by just over two percentage points last year. The circumstances of the purchase were murky. The Adelson family's identity was concealed, forcing the Review-Journal staff to uncover and reveal who it was actually working for. The result was a high-profile journalistic scandal. Key figures in that courageous reporting effort left the paper.
Other wealthy people have snapped up struggling dailies in recent years. While they have often been greeted as civic heroes salvaging a precious but endangered local asset, Adelson's jump into the newspaper game triggered widespread suspicion and dismay.
Other wealthy people have snapped up struggling dailies in recent years: Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (The Washington Post), Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (The Boston Globe), Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor (Minneapolis' Star Tribune), a group of local business people (The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News). While they have often been greeted as civic heroes salvaging a precious but endangered local asset, Adelson's jump into the newspaper game triggered widespread suspicion and dismay.
Despite the massive turbulence that ensued, and the widespread fear that Adelson would shape the paper's coverage to benefit his manifold interests, Moon, now 66, wasn't deterred from taking the plunge. "That's probably what drew me in," he says. "Reading about how things were playing out, the missteps along the way, we thought we could come in and make a difference."
Much has happened in the 17 months since he arrived. Moon enlisted J. Keith Moyer, a former publisher of Minneapolis' Star Tribune who had twice before worked for Moon as his editor, and the two were off to the races. At a time when many newspapers across the nation continue to slash their workforces, the Review-Journal (circulation about 80,000 daily, 120,000 Sunday) has undergone a remarkable growth spurt.
In an interview in his office, Moyer ticks off the highlights:
--The newsroom staff, sliced and diced by the two previous owners, has grown by a third, from under 100 to nearly 150.
--The paper has created a new investigative team, with five staffers on board and a sixth to follow.
--The Review-Journal has resuscitated its mothballed Washington bureau, with two correspondents on board.
--Moyer has rebuilt his management team with editors who have worked at much larger papers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle.
--The paper has redesigned its print edition and its website.
--It hired a reporter to cover the Oakland Raiders, even though the NFL team won't make its Vegas debut until 2020.
--In July, it plans to debut its new video studio, designed to disrupt the local television market.
"We're growing as fast as any newsroom in the country," Moyer says.
Review-Journal reporter Richard N. Velotta shares the enthusiasm. "This is what a lot of papers dream of," he says.
Adelson, the 83-year-old chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns the Venetian and the Palazzo in Las Vegas as well as casinos in Macau and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, declined to be interviewed for this article. "He is proud the family purchased the paper and believes their ownership of it will be good for Las Vegas and the entire state," a spokesman said.
Despite assertions by Moon, Moyer and other top editors that the newsroom is independent and the owner doesn't intervene, doubts persist.
Mary Hausch, a former Review-Journal managing editor who retired last year as a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says the influence of the Adelson family is "deeply felt." She says coverage of Adelson's far-flung interests is "skewed through omission or editing. Reporters know what won't fly past top editors so, after awhile, they don't bother to test the process."
Jim Wright was the paper's deputy editor at the time of the sale and was deeply involved in the effort to unmask the new owners. He left five months into the Adelson ownership, but continues to follow the paper closely and has been an outspoken critic.
"The idea that the Review-Journal is run as an independent body is laughable."
“Coverage of night cops is not that different," but coverage of issues Adelson cares about "pretty much comes out of public relations," says Wright, now director of investigations at the Louisville Courier-Journal. "The idea that the Review-Journal is run as an independent body is laughable."
“The reason I’m the publisher is my political views,” Moon tells me. “They align with Sheldon’s.”
That would place them very much on the conservative side of the political spectrum. Editorial page editor John Kerr reports to Moon. The advent of Adelson doesn't mean much of a shift for the paper's outlook, which traditionally has tilted rightward. The Review-Journal was one of the few papers to endorse Donald Trump during last year's general election. "Whoever was the Republican nominee, we would support," Moon says.
Adelson, who paid a whopping $140 million for the Review-Journal, was the second most generous benefactor of political candidates in 2016, according to OpenSecrets.org, ponying up $82.5 million -- $40,000 of it to Democrats and liberals.
The publisher says he has dinner with the Adelson family on occasion and has grown quite fond of them. They keep their hands off the paper, Moon says: "I run it the same way I run my own papers." Moon says he tells Adelson, "I don't know how to run a hotel and you don't know how to run a newspaper."
(“By the way, newspapers are the first of over 50 companies that I started where my employees tell me how to run my business,” Adelson told The New York Times last year.)
On his first day on the job, Moon made a controversial decision regarding John L. Smith, the paper’s longtime local columnist. Adelson had once sued Smith over a book Smith had written, forcing the columnist into bankruptcy because of the size of the attorney fees. (Adelson dropped the suit.) Moon decreed that the columnist could no longer write about the owner. Smith resigned in April 2016 after Moyer told him he also couldn’t write about Adelson's fellow casino magnate Steve Wynn, who had also sued Smith.
“How could someone who had been sued (by Adelson) and went bankrupt have an even-handed approach to the owner of the paper?” asks Moon, stressing that he made the Adelson decision as publisher.
Moyer confirmed to me that he didn't want Smith writing about Wynn.
“I think we’ll be a leader in the industry in very short order.”
Moon says the Review-Journal is making money and "we're not halfway where we'll be a year from now. I think we'll be a leader in the industry in very short order."
Editor Moyer was teaching journalism at the University of Minnesota when his old boss Moon summoned him back to the newsroom fray. He was intrigued, but he had read about the sturm und drang at the paper. “I told them I have to have complete control of the newsroom,” he says. And Adelson told him he would.
“The assurances made to me he has lived up to,” Moyer says. “He has not meddled in the newsroom. There have been no demands that compromise our journalistic integrity.”
“I don’t have a batphone on my desk,” Moyer adds.
Moyer is enthusiastic about the paper's rapid growth and the management team he has put together, and credits the Adelson family with encouraging the expansion.
The editor says either he or Managing Editor Glenn Cook, who has been at the R-J since 1996, “eyeball” all stories that deal with Adelson. “People act like it’s a terrible thing, but since time immemorial editors have been eyeballing stories regarding the owner,” says Moyer, who has been top editor of six papers and publisher of two.
The idea, he adds, is “not to soften the stories but to make sure they are accurate.” The notion that such pieces “are run up the flagpole is just preposterous. It never happens and it never will on my watch.”
Moyer says the paper is scrupulous about mentioning Adelson's role at the paper in the numerous stories involving his interests. "We over disclose our ownership," he says.
But it's clear that Moyer is nettled by the criticism that comes from what he calls the "naysayers."
“My journalistic ethics have never been challenged. We’ve done great public service reporting wherever I’ve been.”
“My journalistic ethics have never been challenged,” Moyer says. “We’ve done great public service reporting wherever I’ve been.”
Karisa King was a watchdog reporter at the Chicago Tribune when the Review-Journal came calling last year with an intriguing offer: Come to Las Vegas and build an investigative team.
“It was a real opportunity to add a new public service to the community,” King says. “It was a special opportunity in today’s newspaper climate.”
She liked the fact that new blood and new resources were arriving in the newsroom. "It was a real contrast to what I was seeing elsewhere. Talking about a redesign of the paper and digital to me signaled a long-term commitment to improving the newspaper."
But there was one thing: She had read about the paper's turmoil and concerns about Adelson's role. "We talked about it quite a bit," she says. "Keith and Glenn were very forthcoming. They made it clear that there would be no interference with our team, and that assurance went all the way to the top. It was the elephant in the room, and they weren't pretending it wasn't there."
A year in, that promise has been kept, says King, who was a reporter at the San Antonio Express-News before joining the Tribune. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel they were living up to those assurances." Still, she acknowledges, "a lot of people find that difficult to believe, given how the sale was handled."
King has signed up four reporters -- one from inside, three from outside -- and plans soon to add a fifth. As for her new home, she says, "Vegas really makes an impression on you. It's more over the top and Playlandish than I expected."
Her first recruit was Jeff German, who had been covering the courts for the Review-Journal. He has been at the paper for seven years and before that worked for the Las Vegas Sun for 31 years. So he's got a little Vegas institutional knowledge.
“It’s like the old days for me. I never thought I’d have this much fun in the journalism business again.”
Under the two previous ownerships, Stephens Media and GateHouse Media, the paper was constantly cutting back "and you didn't know if you'd be laid off," he says. He wondered if he needed a new game plan. "Now it's like the old days for me. I never thought I'd have this much fun in the journalism business again."
Anastasia Hendrix spent 17 years at the San Francisco Chronicle, rising to senior features editor. Then, she says, like everyone else in San Francisco, she got startup fever, and she joined one specializing in beauty and health care. But it wasn't for her. She heard that Moyer, who had been her boss 20 years earlier at The Fresno Bee, had become editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. So she tracked him down. "I had seen Keith's incredible leadership," she says.
But she had also read the stories about Adelson's controversial arrival; she remembered reacting, "Oh dear. Oh my." Like King, she was satisfied with the reassurances she received, and in May 2016 she arrived in Vegas as the paper's assistant managing editor for features. "They were making a substantial investment in journalism, and I wanted to be part of it," she says.
She adds, "It kind of feels like a startup. There's a wholly different mindset. There's the romance of newspaper excitement and the forward-thinking of a startup."
As for overseeing features in Vegas, she says, "I've never thought so much about magicians in my life."
No matter the commitments and the safeguards, there's no getting around it: There are lots of inherent conflicts of interests, not to say landmines, when a state's largest news outlet is owned by arguably its most powerful force. Not to give Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron a heart attack, but imagine if the legendary paper was owned by Trump.
As Review-Journal reporter Velotta puts it, "I know the code of ethics says a person shouldn't own the paper when he's a big player."
In Las Vegas, this fraught situation was exacerbated by Adelson's misguided attempt to conceal the fact that he was buying the paper.
“Adelson’s biggest mistake was trying to hide his ownership at the outset. That set the tone for all that went wrong afterwards.”
“Adelson's biggest mistake was trying to hide his ownership at the outset. That set the tone for all that went wrong afterwards,” says Hausch, the former Review-Journal managing editor and UNLV journalism professor. “The conflicts he has as a gaming mogul and previously as a potential stadium developer would give most journalists pause. The secrecy aspect compounded that.”
She adds, "When I taught media ethics at UNLV, I spent considerable time on the perception problem. A perceived conflict is a real conflict in the eyes of the beholder."
Hausch, some of whose students have gone on to work for the paper, is skeptical of assertions that the newsroom operates with complete independence. "Officially the family controls the editorial page, which makes sense because they do own the paper, but claims to not interfere in the news process," she says. "Reporters know otherwise."
Says one former editor at the R-J, "Except when the issue personally relates to Adelson and his interests, the paper is doing a really good job."
Critics point to an episode in February 2016, early in the Adelson era, involving a story about a wrongful termination lawsuit by the former head of Adelson's Macau operations. Wright, the former deputy editor, says managing editor Cook gave him a lengthy motion by Sands Corp. lawyers and specific instructions about what the story on it should say. Among other things, he says, Cook told him the paper's article should include the motion's 12 bullet points about why the judge in the case should be removed -- verbatim. That's an unusual step. And, Wright says, the edict came not long after he had been instructed to significantly shorten a story about a filing by the other side.
“It was legalese,” Wright says of the bullet points. “A lot didn’t make sense.” Wright says his efforts to overturn his instructions were unsuccessful.
Cook says he discussed the motion with Moyer and they decided this was a good opportunity to fully air Sands' case against the judge. "We decided to put it all out there," he says. "It dealt with a lot of core issues about why Sands wanted the judge off the case."
“It was my decision,” Moyer adds. “If I had been forced to do it, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now.” (The case was ultimately settled.)
One major challenge that has faced the paper is covering efforts to build a stadium in Las Vegas as part of a campaign to entice pro football's Oakland Raiders to move to the gambling mecca. Adelson was a major champion of the initiative, and had planned to invest $650 million in the private-public stadium partnership until he withdrew from the deal in January.
Since the $1.9 billion stadium includes $750 million in public funds, a record amount for such a project, it screamed for probing coverage. But a number of Vegas watchers I talked to said the coverage was far too soft.
Smith, the Review-Journal columnist who left after he was forbidden from writing about Adelson, is now freelancing and seems eager to move on from the controversy. He says of the paper these days, "Some of the coverage is focused, and really good." But as for the stadium question, he says, "They obviously have a conflict with the Raiders stadium deal. I saw an awful lot of cheerleading and not as much skepticism."
Moyer and Cook reject the criticism. Moyer says the coverage has been no different than it would have been in his days in Minneapolis or Fresno. Cook points to a story the paper broke near the end of a special legislative session on stadium financing, at a time when Adelson was still involved as the key investor. The piece revealed that a report found the state would have to speed up $899 million in freeway improvements to accommodate the stadium. Earlier that week, the Nevada Department of Transportation had said the stadium project would have no fiscal impact on the agency.
“This put the whole project at risk,” Cook says. “No one else, including the stonethrowers who criticize us, got that story.”
The public funding ultimately survived. Even without Adelson's largesse, the stadium is moving forward and the Raiders are supposed to bring professional football to Las Vegas in 2020.
Velotta, who covered the stadium issue for the Review-Journal, says he "didn't feel any interference at all," although he quickly adds, "I was never happier than when (Adelson) dropped out. There's always the chance when the owner is part of the story that something would be changed, but I never experienced that."
But the reporter says there's no question Adelson's role can make life complicated.
“One of the hardest things is hearing things around the community (about the paper’s coverage) that you know are not true. People say, ‘Remember where that’s coming from. Remember who’s his boss.’”
“One of the hardest things is hearing things around the community (about the paper’s coverage) that you know are not true,” Velotta says. “People say, ‘Remember where that’s coming from. Remember who’s his boss.’”
The Review-Journal also has come under fire for its coverage of a story broken by The Nevada Independent, a nonprofit digital news organization launched in January by prominent Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston. The article, published in May, revealed that Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt had urged state Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett to intervene in a civil lawsuit on behalf of Adelson. (The casino magnate is a major backer of Laxalt.)
Burnett had been so concerned by the request that he secretly recorded the conversation and turned the tape over to the FBI. Burnett declined to intervene, and the FBI concluded nothing criminal had transpired.
Wright says the Review-Journal didn't publish many stories on the issue and called that response "a perfect example of the difference in the paper" pre- and post-Adelson. "It's an indication of how Mr. Adelson does business and how the paper covers it."
Moyer says he put a couple of reporters on the story, but no one was talking. He points out that there was no illegality, and says gambling companies regularly come to the attorney general seeking help. And so the R-J covered the story but hardly as a major deal. "It's interesting only because of the taping," he says. "It's not a very big story."
(Ralston, a longtime Adelson critic who calls the Review-Journal "The Adelson News," declined to be quoted for this story because his news outlet competes with the R-J.)
When I asked King, chief of the new investigative team, which story she was proudest of so far, she pointed to an article on profligate spending by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The lead of the hard-hitting piece reads, "The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spends millions of taxpayer dollars on high-end entertainment, including top-shelf liquor and $300 steaks, as well as gifts for employees and first-class trips for board members. The agency's lavish purchases at times have little or no business purpose and routinely violate its own vague expense policies, a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation found."
Sounds like classic accountability reporting, right? It is. But there is a wrinkle: Adelson owns a rival outfit, the Sands Expo and Convention Center.
Because of that fact, Wright calls the LVCVA story "the most egregious thing to happen" during the Adelson era. He says an independent investigative unit would have made it a top priority to give readers the perception of fierce independence. "The first thing out of the box, of all the problems in Vegas, you choose one that irritates your owner for business reasons."
Says UNLV journalism professor Stephen Bates, "The paper did do an investigative piece on misspent money at the tax-funded visitor and convention organization here, which competes with Adelson. It struck me -- obvious, I guess -- that you can advance your business interests, as a newspaper owner, through valid investigative reporting, and not just through bias or omission."
King and Moyer reject the notion that the piece is in any way problematic.
“Fact is, the LVCVA's spending excesses have been common knowledge in these parts for some time,” Moyer says, “but the topic was essentially a third rail of sorts that no one beforehand had the guts to tackle -- I am assuming because of the immense power within and behind that generously funded tax-dependent organization.”
“There is much more to report on the LVCVA's wasteful spending habits and our readers can count on reading those stories in the days and months ahead in the R-J,” he added.
King says the story came out of the investigative team, not from a directive from above. Reporter Jeff German had long wanted to do a story on unchecked spending by the powerful agency that hadn't had much scrutiny. Records requests moved quickly, which led to the piece being the team's first. King says she thought about the appearance issue given the fact that Adelson has a competing convention center, "but we didn't want to choose what we do by how it would be perceived by people who don't think we're independent."
And she has no regrets: "It's an important story for us or any newspaper to do."
Despite the slings and arrows, Moyer says he's having a great time. He's glad he left academia for the Vegas cauldron. He likes Las Vegas and he likes what's happening at the Review-Journal. Now 64, he says he may stay in the job until he turns 70.
And he's thinking big: To be a truly regional paper, he says, the Review-Journal needs reporters in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Phoenix and Denver, maybe Salt Lake City, although those outposts won't be established right away.
“If you’re going to have a last rodeo,” he says, “this is going to be a hell of a ride.”
Rieder is a former USA TODAY media columnist and editor-at-large and before that the longtime editor of American Journalism Review. He didn't overlap with Moon's tenure at USA Today.
clarification: This story has been updated to include additional details about John L. Smith’s resignation from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Illustration by Lucie Birant.