LAS VEGAS, Nev. – The announcement that the family of billionaire casino mogul and GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson now owns the Las Vegas Review-Journal comes after a weeklong mystery that had media watchdogs and politicians demanding transparency and led to the paper’s own staff breaking the news about the identity of their new boss.
The editor of the Review-Journal vowed to remain a trusted and objective voice in covering the news but said the paper hasn’t established how it will navigate the complicated balance in covering Adelson, who is an influential figure in the 2016 presidential contest and owns a casino-hotel and convention centre on the Las Vegas Strip.
Editor Michael Hengel acknowledged the concerns of his staff over the past week and said the paper will continue to do its best work to prove itself.
“That’s an everyday battle for us, as it is for any journalists, trying to earn people’s trust,” he said. “That’s our intent, to earn it every day.”
The deal captured the attention of the media and political worlds after it was revealed a week ago that the paper was sold for a second time this year to an unidentified buyer at a markup. Critics said it was irresponsible for an institution built on demanding transparency in government to be so secretive about its owners.
Reporters took to social media to express frustration. Education reporter Neal Morton highlighted the fact that unflattering quotes that appeared in some versions of the paper’s initial story about the sale later disappeared online, including one in which the new buyer’s front man, News + Media manager Michael Schroeder, implored staff to focus on their jobs and not worry about the new owners. Schroeder didn’t return calls for comment Thursday.
Rumours focused on the deep-pocketed Adelson. The timing of the sale and the purchase price had pundits theorizing that Adelson bought the largest newspaper in a swing state to influence the presidential election.
Nevada is fourth in the primary process, with balloting in February. In the 2012 campaign, the Adelson family spent more than any other donor — about $90 million. He denied Tuesday any “personal interest” in ownership when asked by CNN during the presidential debate held at his own hotel.
“We understand the desire of the hard-working staff at the R-J and others in the community to know the identity of the paper’s new owners, and it was always our intention to publicly announce our ownership of the R-J,” a statement from the Adelsons said. They said they held back because they didn’t want an announcement to distract from Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate held at the Venetian casino-hotel.
Ken Doctor, a media analyst, said the previous owner effectively flipped the newspaper for a profit. He called Adelson a political buyer who has no clear motivation for profit.
“This is becoming a Monopoly game. The losers in this are the readers of the daily American newspaper,” Doctor said.
The deal is not Adelson’s first foray into newspapers. He owns a paper in Israel. Nor is he the first billionaire to get into the newspaper business, especially as they became more affordable in recent years with the downturn in the industry.
Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought up dozens of newspapers in recent years, and Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post in 2013. Dot-com millionaire Aaron Kushner snatched up the Orange County Register with a pledge to turn around the paper but walked away from the role earlier this year.
New Media Investment Group paid $102.5 million in February for the Review-Journal and several Stephens Media publications in other states. New Media in turn sold just the Review-Journal and affiliated publications in Nevada to the Adelson-backed News + Media Capital Group LLC for $140 million.
Mike Reed, CEO of New Media’s subsidiary company Gatehouse Media, said the public company had no intention to resell the paper but did so out of fiduciary duty in the best interest of its shareholders. A confidentiality agreement didn’t allow the company to disclose who it was doing business with. A management agreement will keep Gatehouse running the publication.
Reed said reporters everywhere had spent too much time on the story with the intention of generating controversy and claimed that readers didn’t care, despite the hundreds of comments attached to the Review-Journal’s latest story online.
“I just wish reporters had better hearts and better intentions than just trying to slam media companies trying to do good,” he said.
Reed also rejected the notion that the sale has tarnished the Review-Journal’s reputation.
“Not one consumer, subscriber has called to complain,” Reed said. “There’s been no damage to the R-J. The R-J newsroom will continue on to do the great work that they’ve done.”
The Adelsons, citing their many charitable and civic involvements, said the paper was purchased as an investment both financially and in the Las Vegas community. They pledged to invest in the paper.
“We believe deeply that a strong and effective daily newspaper plays a critical role in keeping our state apprised of the important news and issues we face on a daily basis,” the family’s statement said.
The deal also creates the odd dynamic with the family that owns the other newspaper in town, the Las Vegas Sun. The Sun is distributed alongside the Review-Journal as the result of a joint-operating agreement. Its owner is Brian Greenspun, who was classmates with former President Bill Clinton and has supported Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
Associated Press writer Kimberly Pierceall contributed to this report.