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John L. Smith: Sun-RJ Battle Shows Need For 2-Paper Town

Associated Press

Las Vegas’ long-simmering newspaper war bubbled to the surface last week as the Las Vegas Review-Journal posted a front-page editorial announcing its intention to end a 30-year Joint Operating Agreement with the Las Vegas Sun.

The agreement is set to last another 20 years, but the R-J, Nevada’s largest newspaper, wants to pull the plug early, saying the Sun is producing sub-standard content and isn’t living up to its end of the agreement.

The Sun responded with a promise to its readers it won’t kneel to the will of multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson, who owns the R-J.

John L. Smith, who has worked at both papers, provided an insight into the fight and how he finds some comfort in the fact that the two still go at each other--and that both still exist in Las Vegas.

“You’re talking about two newspapers that from time to time over the years have been at war over any number of different issues. Lots of politics, political differences here, a lot of different approaches to the news business from time to time,” Smith noted.

The papers entered the agreement in the 80s when circulation at the Sun had dropped.

"By the late 80s, a deal was cut in order to preserve the voices in the community," Smith said, "These two very different, but I would argue, important voices in our community to try to preserve the Las Vegas Sun by having it essentially be in an agreement… with the Review-Journal that the Review-Journal would handle certain business and advertising issues and the Sun would go about the business of making its journalism and cutting-edge editorials and really producing an awful lot of news, winning awards, including a Pulitzer Prize.”

While the Sun continues with journalism, its circulation dropped to the point that it no longer made sense to print an entire newspaper so it became an insert in the Review-Journal. 

Smith said even then the Sun continued to break stories, much to the chagrin of the Review-Journal reporters.

Now, the Review-Journal is arguing that the content is not good enough but Smith said the Sun reporters and others in the Greenspun Media Group are writing interesting stories and features, they're just available online not in the physical newspaper.

“It’s my understanding that there is a strategy that is taking place. The Sun’s management has wanted more from the Review-Journal side of the equation and has not gotten it and therefore has not invested in the daily product that is the Sun insert,” Smith said.

For the Review-Journal's part, Sun Publisher Brian Greenspun told KNPR's State of Nevada that he believes Adelson is trying to put him out of business.

Smith said there is a combination of reasons why the Review-Journal would want the Sun to fold.

“It makes good business sense to eliminate the newsprint and some of the overhead that’s caused by the Sun, that makes sense. What also makes sense is that if you follow Sheldon Adelson’s career he really, shall we say, frowns on people who disagree with him and clearly Brian Greenspun has disagreed with him editorially on a number of topics,” he said.

The Review-Journal and the Sun weren't the only papers to opt into a JOA. Many papers around the country signed them as a way to keep operations afloat, “but over time, even with that belt and suspenders approach, newspapers wound up failing,” Smith said.

And as the internet has taken over the news business, more and more newspapers have failed. But, Smith is not sure that's an argument a judge is going to buy.

“I think technology has outstripped this as a legal solution; however, I wouldn’t want to walk into the courtroom and make that argument,” he said.

JOA's are legally binding contracts so even if one side doesn't like it anymore it is still a contract.


John L. Smith, KNPR contributor

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.