The coverage was hard to miss. “RJ sweeps top journalism awards,” screamed the headline stripped across the top of the regional news section cover of the print Las Vegas Review-Journal on Sunday, September 25. The story said the paper took “every top investigative and institutional award in the urban division” of the annual Nevada Press Foundation competition. The story jumped to two inside pages and was adorned by 29 photos of winning staffers. The pictures included Jeff German, the investigative reporter murdered just three weeks earlier allegedly by an elected official he was writing about.
But the previous Sunday’s paper had information at least equally significant about the RJ that was much, much harder to find. It was buried in a legal notice itself buried at the right-bottom corner of page 8-G of the real estate section, near classified ads for a missing parrot, taxi driver openings and the sale of “top XXX DVDs.” In effect the RJ fessed up to yet another year of paid circulation declines, leaving the count at barely a quarter of what it was when present ownership assumed control in 2015, the year before I became New To Las Vegas.
The RJ published the data, officially called the Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation, only because it’s a condition of having a second-class mailing permit allowing lower postage for subscriptions. This is the same kind of government subsidy the paper’s conservative editorial pages regularly bash when offered to, say, ordinary folks in the form of entitlements. (A few years back, the paper published the annual statement so full of typos it violated the requirement that it be truthful and had to publish a corrected version a week later.)
In this legal notice, the RJ said its average daily paid print and digital circulation for the year ending August 31 was 62,900–just 45,383 printed copies augmented by 17,517 digital subscriptions. That was a 5.4% drop from the 66,525 listed a year ago for the 12 months ending August 31, 2021. To break this down a little finer, a significant drop of 6,650 print copies was only partly offset by a 3,025 boost in digital subs.
But even with print home delivery starting at less than 34 cents a day, 62,900 is a whopping 72.9% below the 232,372 the RJ declared its daily print and digital circulation was during the quarter ending on September 30, 2015. Moreover, the latest number reflected all seven days, including the Sunday paper, which has a roughly 20% greater print circulation, whereas the 2015 number was just Monday-to-Friday. So the comparable daily drop is even deeper, probably rounding to 74%.
So what, you might say, aren’t all newspapers in trouble, thanks to online ad sites, Internet news sites, economic ups and downs, and even Covid? Largely yes. But nationwide, according to various studies, Monday-to-Friday newspaper circulation is off about 36% since 2015. So the RJ has under-performed its peers by more than half. That’s even with a 12% increase in the Las Vegas area population, a growth pattern triple the national rate.
As it turns out, the third quarter of 2015 was the last before the family of casino-billionaire-and-big-Republican-donor Sheldon Adelson acquired the RJ in December 2015–at first secretly before his own paper outed him as the buyer. Adelson paid $140 million, a sum so much higher than the going rate that it prompted speculation the dominant motive for the purchase was political influence exercise and business reputation protection rather than generating profits. The dreary circulation numbers alone might confirm this view.
Adelson died last year at age 87 as the world’s 38th richest person, with a net worth estimated at $35 billion. He had just sold off all his Las Vegas properties with the sole exception of the RJ. His widow, Miriam Adelson, now 76, just made the new Forbes 400 list with an estimated net worth of $27.9 billion. She’d probably be worth a little more without the RJ, which likely loses a lot of money. While bearing all non-editorial expenses like printing, ad sales and delivery, the RJ also has to give 10% of any cash flow to the Las Vegas Sun. That’s the RJ‘s politically opposite partner in a joint operating agreement long predating Adelson’s tenure that still has 18 years to run before the RJ can end it unilaterally. Of course, there’s always the possibility that market forces could end both papers’ print editions, as happened recently up Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City.
The papers, which technically have the same circulation, have been battling in court for years. The Sun accuses Adelson and now his family of trying to shut the Sun, and the RJ accuses the Sun, an ad-free section inserted into the RJ, of putting out a weak product. There likely are some factual truths in both positions, even though they may be irrelevant to the underlying legal issues. Since a joint operating agreement is a monopoly exempt from federal antitrust law, I have written this was like (1) two bank robbers suing each other over the division of spoils, or (2) two scorpions battling in a sinking bottle; the victor is doomed to death, too.
The sad part about all this is that Nevada is becoming as much a news desert as the Mojave Desert that covers much of it. Besides the RJ and the Sun, the state is down to just two other daily newspapers. The handful of new online news outlets haven’t fully taken up the slack. So perhaps it’s not surprising the RJ could sweep a news contest when perhaps no more than a half-dozen outlets are even able to enter.
Feel free to comment below on the issues I raise above. I promise not to hide them.