Las Vegas Review-Journal circulation plummets 19% in one year

The Las Vegas Review-Journal is Nevada’s dominant daily newspaper. But its circulation is sinking even faster than the approval rating of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is regularly disparaged on the paper’s conservative editorial page.

According to its own published numbers, the RJ‘s average paid print-and-digital daily circulation fell in the one-year period to late August by 19%, from 82,369 during the year earlier period to 66,525. In 2015, when the family of now-deceased billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bought the paper, its circulation, all print, was a reported 232,372.  So that works out to a 71% circulation drop–nearly three-quarters, and most of it before COVID-19, which surely hasn’t helped–in just six years, despite bargain-basement subscription offers.

If you’re thinking, so what, almost all newspapers are faltering, that sadly is a fair view. But nationally, newspaper circulation since 2015 has dropped less than 50%. And the Las Vegas market population has gone up 12% over that period, compared with only a 4% rise nationally. Everyone is dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic. So the RJ is really under-performing. Now that takes a special skill.

There was once a time when daily newspapers everywhere bragged about their print circulations, especially when total national circulation peaked at 62 million in 1990 (It’s about 20 million now). That was just before the Internet and then Craiglist stared siphoning off readers and classified ads in a flow that has yet to end.

The RJ does not make it easy for locals to find out its circulation. Its website does not go out of its way to easily display the data. But the paper has a second-class mailing permit, which allows for reduced-rate postage (somewhat amusing given the paper’s anti-handout, anti-entitlement editorial-page philosophy). Federal law requires the RJ, like all publications with such privileges, to annually publish in its print edition a sworn statement of circulation. Still, you have to know when and where to look.

The information is in a legal notice, which this year appeared in tiny type in the Sunday edition of September 19, at the bottom of page 8-G below classified ads for garage sales and used Belle Klipsch stereo speakers. That’s where I got this year’s sad numbers.

The RJ is in a joint operating agreement with the Las Vegas Sun, which is distributed as an ad-free separate section within the RJ. So technically the more-liberal Sun, owned by the Greenspun family, has exactly the same circulation drop. However, there is a big difference. Under the JOA, which started in 1989 and is scheduled to run until 2040, the RJ gets all the advertising and circulation revenue and bears all the costs of running the paper, like printing and distribution, save the editorial expenses of the Sun. I imagine the JOA operation is running up huge losses.

According to the JOA, the Sun gets a 10% cut of the JOA cash flow, which likely went poof several years ago. But the Sun is operated on an utter shoestring, mainly running wire copy–I once pointed out it has more lawyers than news reporters. With help from an arbitration ruling saying the RJ has to fork over some cash for past accounting tricks, the Sun is able to get by for the time being, although at the cost of having minimal clout for its journalism, because there is no little of it.

Meanwhile, the RJ and the Sun remain in protracted, wearying litigation in both state and federal courts over the terms of the JOA. The Sun says the RJ is trying to put it out of business while the RJ says the Sun is now an embarrassment to journalism. I suspect there is some factual validity to both assertions, although they may not amount to much legally. JOAs take advantage of a federal law that provides combining newspapers an exemption to antitrust laws, yet the Sun is accusing the RJ of violating those very laws. I once wrote here this was an outrageous proposition, like two thieves, after a heist, suing each other over the division of spoils.

Sure, there’s been something of a rise in local online-only news media. In Nevada that includes The Nevada Independent, Nevada Current and The Nevada Globe. But in my view they won’t come anywhere near filling the void of the waning print media, especially when it comes to coverage of and commentary on smaller issues.

I invite comments below on any of my facts or perceptions.

Now I’m an old newsie. Decades ago, I was a newspaper reporter on the East Coast and in Texas. Several of the papers have since gone out of business. I love newspapers and (counting the Sun inside the RJ) get four thrown daily to the New to Las Vegas world headquarters. But at this rate, I’m not sure how much longer that will be possible.

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