Battling Las Vegas newspaper scorpions sink 11% in one year

Las Vegas newspaper scorpionsUpdated on September 29, 2019. See end of post.

Amid a continuing lawsuit over–what else?–money, the two daily newspapers in Las Vegas, which are distributed together, saw their average print circulation drop a staggering one-ninth in just one year.

The bad news was buried in tiny type in an obscure legal notice replete with typos (see update below) at the bottom of page 10-F in yesterday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal. The paper is owned by conservative Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. It is in a 50-year joint operating agreement with the Las Vegas Sun, which is owned by the more liberal Greenspun family and published as a separate section inserted in the RJ. The RJ handles all advertising, circulation and printing, as well as its own editorial project.

According to the notice, which is also submitted to the U.S. Postal Service under oath, the total average paid print circulation for the previous 12 months was 69,081. The year-earlier figure, published just as obscurely in the paper on September 23, 2018, was 77,826. Do the math, and that works out to a 11.24% drop–more than one-ninth. Because the 69,081 is a 12-month average of daily and Sunday, the current average print circulation for, say, last week, was probably even lower by several thousand.

In predicting this continuing circulation drop several weeks ago, I likened the situation to two scorpions fighting in a sinking bottle; the victor eventually will die, too. Nothing in the new numbers alters my view in the slightest.

And that’s assuming that the stated paid circulation numbers are even correct. As someone New To Las Vegas, I have encountered folks around town who tell me they refused to pay a subscription rate increase but still receive the paper and even some who say they stopped paying altogether but still get the paper. There is a box on the Postal Service form submitted by the RJ certifying “that 50% of all … distributed copies (electronic and print) are paid above a nominal price.” According to the legal notice in yesterday’s paper, the box was unchecked, perhaps suggesting there was a lot of heavy price discounting going on by the RJ.

Thanks to the Internet and the evaporation of classified ads from Craigs List, print newspapers everywhere are hurting. But the situation in Las Vegas seems especially painful and noteworthy, given the fact the population has been rising sharply. In 2015, the year Adelson bought control of the RJ and thus the joint operating agency, the claimed daily print and digital circulation was 232,372. The RJ/Sun now claims it had on average during the past year 3,511 digital subscribers (I deduced this from the legal notice, which did not break out digital-only subscribers on a separate line as the Postal Service form calls for). But even with the digital readers, average paid circulation was only 72,622, a precipitous 69% drop on the Adelson team’s relatively short watch.

Meanwhile, litigation continues in a Nevada state court over a lawsuit brought by the Sun against the RJ challenging division of cash flow and other issues from their joint operating agreement, created in 1989 and modified in 2005 when the Sun became a section of the RJ. After apparently losing an arbitration decision on an important issue, the RJ filed a counterclaim calling for the end of the joint operating agreement, claiming the Sun was not producing a high-enough quality product.

The counterclaim by the RJ strikes me as a Hail Mary, a desperate attempt by the RJ to get out of what financially has become a bad agreement likely to get worse with 20 more years to go. It’s hard for me to imagine any court passing judgment on the quality of a newspaper in this context.

But in my view, neither paper is doing itself any First Amendment favors by attempting to file certain documents and exhibits in the court case under seal, meaning they can’t be seen by the public, including people like me. The RJ, in particular, has won open records lawsuits against government agencies, most notably a decision in the Nevada Supreme Court involving Las Vegas police tapes growing out of the October 1, 2017, massacre along the Las Vegas Strip. So the hypocrisy here is significant.

Down the road, I have to think the newspapers will see their motion-to-seal filings in this litigation thrown back into their faces to the disadvantage of the public when public agencies fight back. A hearing on the RJ-Sun sealing issue is scheduled for next month.

Meanwhile, the notice deep in yesterday’s RJ with the sad circulation data ran next to an ad seeking bids for new water pumps at Lake Las Vegas. That should make drowning the surviving scorpion even easier.

UPDATE on September 29, 2019, 9:05 a.m.: As I pointed out above, that required legal notice last Sunday documenting the RJ‘s sharp circulation decline contained a number of typos. Some of them were at key points–like in the press run and circulation numbers, making it hard for an average reader to discern some of the actual figures. I’m speculating that someone in the RJ brain trust realized after publication that such a flawed notice might violate the oath taken by the paper under penalty of perjury to furnish “true and complete information” and to avoid publishing “false or misleading information.” Whatever the reason, the legal notice, officially called the “Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation,” was republished in this morning’s edition starting on page 9-F with all the typos fixed. But I must note that part of the republished notice sits next to advertisements for burial plots, an appropriate venue for dead scorpions.        

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