Las Vegas Review-Journal paid print circulation drops another 12% in year

Las Vegas Review-JournalIn December 2022, I posted here my “Las Vegas predictions for 2023.” Many of them were satirical tongue-in-cheek, like “Elon Musk bans references on Twitter to Las Vegas, but doesn’t give a reason.” But here’s one prediction that was dead serious: “The average paid print circulation of the Las Vegas Review-Journal falls below 40,000, down from 232,000 in 2015 despite a sharp increase in local population.”

In yesterday’s Sunday paper, the RJ published its yearly legally-required-under-oath circulation statement for a period ending in August. The average paid print circulation for the preceding 12 months fell from 45,383 to 39,833.

Whatdayaknow? The 5,550-copy drop amounted to a sharp one-year decline of 12%.

Paid digital subscriptions did not take up the slack, rising only 1,740 from 17,517 in the prior period to to 19,257. So the combined paid print and digital subscription fell 6%, from 62,900 to 59,090.

The grim new data appeared in the paper a day after it published an exuberant story, “Review-Journal staff sweeps Nevada Press awards,” the headline read. The article lauded its 61 awards, in the statewide competition, “the most awards of any news organization in the state.”

I suppose it might be churlish of me to point out that in the entire state there are only four other print daily newspapers left, augmented by two dozen weeklies and a handful of magazines, specialty publications and news blogs. Or that the story about the Nevada Press Foundation awards appeared prominently on the local news section cover while the circulation numbers the next day were buried on page 5-G as a legal notice next to ads for lien sales of stuff left unclaimed in storage lockers like household items and stereo equipment.

Still, despite the poor circulation showing, because the newspaper industry nationally is doing so lousy, the RJ has found itself on a list of the country’s 25 largest dailies by paid print circulation for a part of that period, as compiled by the Alliance for Audited Media. The paper wasn’t all that far behind such legendary titles as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, San Diego Union-Tribune, Denver Post and even the once-mighty New York Daily News.

The longer-term pattern for the RJ hasn’t been good. Since 2015–the same year that casino mega-billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his family secretly acquired control for the wildly inflated price of $140 million–RJ circulation has dropped 75%, and I’m including the digital subscriptions. That’s close to double the national circulation decrease over the same time of about 40%. Meanwhile, during that same period, the Las Vegas population has gone up 27%, versus only 6% for the national population.

The RJ’s latest circulation woes come during a trying period for the paper. A year ago, well-regarded investigative reporter Jeff German, 69, was murdered in his own backyard. Robert Telles, an obscure elected county official who lost his job because of German’s coverage, is accused of the stabbing. Authorities say Telles’s DNA was found underneath German’s fingernails as the reporter fought for his life. Telles has pleaded not guilty but remains in jail pending trial (while being forced out of his public job as the county public administrator, overseer of unclaimed estates). German’s 40 years as a Las Vegas reporter on the RJ and the Las Vegas Sun stretched back to the era of mob casino control.

Unusual for a newspaper of its stature, the RJ has tried to emphasize investigative reporting. Adelson himself died at age 87 in 2021, and his family sold off its other Las Vegas properties, including the Venetian and the Sands Expo and Convention Center, while retaining the RJ. So the paper no longer faces as much criticism that its investigative efforts seemed to target Adelson’s business rivals like the government-owned Las Vegas Convention Center.

The investigative efforts of the RJ amid these declines reminds me more than a little bit of the 1952 movie Deadline-U.S.A. The inspiring film starred Humphrey Bogart as the editor of a crusading newspaper about to be put out of business as his staff pursues the big scandal story. The plot even included a reporter nearly beaten to death.

But alas, I still see some inconsistencies. The RJ has been running a series of articles under the standing head, “What Are They Hiding?” The stories largely complain about Nevada governmental agencies citing non-existent statutory exceptions in refusing to cough up documents under the Nevada Public Records Act. I am a long-time member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. As a reporter who filed hundreds of public records requests across the country decades before becoming New To Las Vegas (and once here to get my own water records to figure out a leak), I certainly support these efforts.

Except for this: The RJ’s own secrecy in several long-running lawsuits in federal and state courts against the Las Vegas Sun, owned by the local Greenspun family.

Since 1989 the two papers have been in a joint operating agreement, pursuant to a federal law providing an exemption to antitrust laws. This allows the papers to jointly rig advertising and circulation rates and pretty much everything except editorial operations. Since 2005, the Sun has been an ad-free insert in the RJ, so technically the Sun has the same same circulation–and circulation decline–as the RJ. But while the RJ gets 90% of the cash flow, it has to pay out of its share for all the printing, distribution and ad solicitation costs of the combined edition.

I think it’s proven to be a terrible purchase and deal financially for the RJ. But the Adelson family is worth $35 billion, according to Forbes, and likes to wield influence.

In the litigation, each side accuses the other of assorted high crimes and misdemeanors of the antitrust variety, hurling a lot of invective in the process. The RJ is charged with trying to put the Sun out of business even thought the JOA has 17 years more to go. The Sun is blamed for not putting out a high-enough quality newspaper. There likely is some truth in both propositions. But I consider the litigation preposterous, and the issues rich. Both papers long enjoyed an antitrust immunity–and inflated profits–for decades until Craigs List and online forums undercut the advertising model. As I have written here before, to me the case is like two bank robbers suing for a division of the remaining spoils.

There has been a minimum of public candor about the litigation by both sides. But for years the parties–but especially the RJ–have been allowed by the judges to make some filings under seal, which means that the public and nosy folks like me can’t see them. This undoubtedly includes juicy stuff like financials and maybe copies of documents showing everyone’s true motives.

Both papers preach freedom of the press. But what can be more the public’s business than total openness of ongoing court proceedings by monopolists that could doom an important organ of public opinion? For me, it is hard to fully respect a publication publicizing a “What Are They Hiding?” campaign when it is a chief hider. The judge in this case should do more to open things up.

From my review this weekend of the federal case docket, it seems both sides recently have asked the court to rule in its favor without a trial, what lawyers call summary judgment. At the rate this litigation is proceeding and the circulation is declining, the print editions before there’s a ruling could be poof–like what happened to the joint operating agency just up I-15 from Las Vegas in Salt Lake City.

Now that’s a prophecy to think about in December for my “Las Vegas predictions for 2024.”

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