With Salt Lake City losing its dailies, can Las Vegas be far behind?

Salt Lake City losing its dailiesSalt Lake City losing its dailiesThe Internet-driven ad meltdown in the daily newspaper industry continues with word that BOTH daily newspapers in Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, are ending everyday print publication after a century-and-a-half of such operations. For those of you elsewhere whose knowledge of the West’s geography comes mainly from Saul Steinberg’s famously warped 1976 cover in The New Yorker, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” Salt Lake City is just 420 miles north on the interstate from the New to Las Vegas world headquarters. There’s not a lot in between the two metro areas.

Which begs this question today, the annual state holiday celebration of Nevada Day: Can Las Vegas be far behind?

Like the Salt Lake dailies, the two in Sin City, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun, are in a joint operating agreement. That’s a Federal Government-sanctioned exemption from antitrust laws that allows dailies in a market to combine all operations other than news and editorial, so as to provide diverse opinions. And like the Salt Lake operation, the Vegas JOA, which has been around since 1989, appears to be losing a boatload of money thanks to truly precipitous drops in circulation and advertising. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News just broke a big story. The owner of the Review-Journal, 87-year-old billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the richest man in Nevada, is thinking about cashing in his local chips by selling his Las Vegas gambling, hotel and convention operations to focus on his far more lucrative properties in Asia.

The Sun, which is now an ad-free section inserted in the R-J with minimal local news reporting and more lawyers than news reporters, is owned by the local Greenspun family.

The way the Vegas JOA is now structured, Adelson’s R-J runs the business side, gets 90% of the cash flow but in effect bears all the losses, including the cost of printing and distributing the Sun. I wouldn’t be surprised if the total losses top $10 million a year. The JOA is scheduled to run until 2040.

Adelson paid a whopping $140 million for the R-J in 2015, leading folks to speculate he bought it partly for insurance purposes to keep out bad press. The paper likely is worth only a fraction of that now. If, like the Nicolas Cage movie, he’s Leaving Las Vegas economically, it’s hard to see a business reason for holding onto the property. And it’s not clear there would be any buyers out there willing to maintain the status quo.

Especially in this economic environment. True, the population of the Salt Lake City metro area is only half that of Las Vegas’s 2.2 million. But right now, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Salt Lake’s unemployment rate is 5.2%, nearly two-thirds less than the 14.8% rate of the Las Vegas metro area. That’s what having an economy essentially based on no social distancing–casinos, restaurants, entertainment, travelers, tourists–will do in an era of disease-forced social distancing. Las Vegas’s economic problems are likely to run far longer than the country as a whole.

In Las Vegas there’s a fair amount of newspaper bad blood. Adelson is a conservative Republican who is one of President Donald J. Trump’s biggest donors. The R-J’s editorial page shamelessly shills for Trump and the Republican Party, although the paper’s endorsement in statewide Nevada races haven’t done the recipients much good. (In 2016, the paper endorsed Trump, who lost the state and its six electoral votes to Hillary Clinton.).

The Sun is more Democratic and liberal and is backing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Despite its scant resources, the paper has delighted of late in declaring daily across the top of its section in all caps that it’s “LAS VEGAS’ ONLY PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING NEWSPAPER” (in 2009 for a exposé about high Las Vegas Strip construction worker death rates).

On the business front, the two papers have been suing each other for several years on various contractual and antitrust grounds, amusingly hurling colorful invective at each other. The Sun alleges the R-J has been trying to put it out of business, while the R-J claims the Sun is deliberately putting out a poor print product to favor its own Web site. I have written in this space the litigation is like battling scorpions in a sinking bottle; even the victor may not survive. Also as I have written here, the Sun‘s lawsuit alleging antitrust violations strikes me as rich considering how much money the paper raked in for decades from its share of a once-lucrative print monopoly. To me, it’s like two thieves, after a heist, suing each other over the division of spoils.

There are some other odd parallels between the newspaper heritages of Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, each the largest metro areas in their states.

Each city has a paper with secret ownership in its history. In Las Vegas it is the R-J, although Adelson’s hidden ownership was quickly exposed (by three of his own reporters, who soon left). In Salt Lake City it is the Tribune. Newly elected U.S. Senator Thomas Kearns bought the paper with a partner in 1901 but hid his ownership for years (perhaps partly because he was a Catholic in a Mormon-dominated area).

Each city also has one paper with continuous ownership and another bouncing around in recent years like a tumbleweed. In Las Vegas the Sun has been owned since its founding in 1950 by Hank Greenspun, a former publicist for a mob-owned casino, and, since his 1989 death, his descendants. By my count since 1993 the R-J has had at least four owners, including Adelson.

In Salt Lake City the Deseret News has been controlled since its founding in 1850 by units of the tax-exempt Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the other hand the Tribune, which dates back to 1868, seems to be on its seventh ownership since 1997. The latest is a tax-exempt nonprofit headed by the paper’s former owner, Paul Huntsman, the public-spirited son of the late billionaire industrialist Jon M. Huntsman and brother of former governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr.

My question about the future of the two Las Vegas dailies comes despite–for the first time in years–a modest uptick in paid print circulation after a precipitous slide. As recently as 2015, the year Adelson took over, the R-J (and by implication the Sun) claimed an average circulation of 232,372, apparently all print, for which substantial ads could be sold.

In its latest annual U.S. Postal Service-required statement of circulation, published in the paper on September 20, the R-J reported average paid print circulation for the previous 12 months of 69,552–a 70% drop from 2015. Yet that’s still an increase of 471 copies over a year ago. Counting digital subscriptions–with their weak ad prospects–the R-J claimed an average total paid circulation of 82,369, which is 9,707 more than last year. Nevertheless, the numbers are pretty lame.

The Salt Lake City papers are ending daily publication and dissolving their JOA, which they started in 1952, on December 31. They will move to printing weekly editions–delivered to subscribers by mail–and beefing up their digital operations. With such a greatly diminished presence, it’s hard to see how this will generate much revenue, so something more eventually might give. Even nonprofits have bills to pay.

I invite comment below from interests mentioned in this post or anyone else.

Thanks to newspaper shutdowns, the roster of multiple-newspaper JOAs across the country–once more than two dozen in such cities as Cincinnati, Denver, Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle–will be down by my count to three, in Las Vegas, Detroit and York, Pa. But the impending termination of the Salt Lake City JOA is the first I can recall anywhere where both newspapers will immediately shut down their daily print editions. Definitely a bad precedent for my stretch of  Interstate 15.

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