The more I think about it, the more I worry.
Like many in Las Vegas, my first reaction to the sudden dismissals Friday of Sherm Frederick as publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Thomas Mitchell as R-J editor was to smile. The two had failed the newspaper and the community in spectacular ways for years, Sherm by becoming an arrogant, obsessive enemy of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Mitchell by being so openly hostile to all things related to the Internet.
But it’s not as simple as that, is it? The actual changes that were made could, in fact, harm Nevada journalism even more than leaving these ineffective, visionless men in their places.
We’ll never know for certain why these changes were made because Stephens Media brass won’t ever say. It’s left to logic, speculation and a few well-placed sources, and from that it’s clear the hammer came down when it did—10 days after Election Day—at least partly because Reid won after Frederick staked the entire reputation and effectiveness of the newspaper on sinking him. The parent company has interests in banking, energy and media, so having the nation’s most powerful senator as a bitter, personal adversary does them no favors.
The reason given—that an ailing publisher was ready to step aside and focus on his health—would be palatable had Frederick and Mitchell not been shoved out the door so unceremoniously. There was no transition period, no articles extolling their accomplishments. Heck, nobody from Stephens had anything—nice or otherwise—to say about Mitchell’s tenure. Cold.
It’s also silly to think this went down because Stephens was unhappy with revenues or sought new journalistic approaches. Were that the case, wouldn’t the ad department be in for an overhaul, too?
That’s where my concern kicks in. The R-J’s new publisher is Bob Brown, the paper’s ad director since 2001. Would they give him a promotion if revenues were the problem? Worse, though, would they install the ad guy at the top if they were looking for a fresh journalistic approach?
Brown has never been a journalist. With no newsroom DNA whatsoever, it’s unlikely he’ll make the expensive changes needed to improve the R-J. Among other things, it needs more reporters—the paper has roughly the same number as a decade ago, when the city was 1 million residents smaller—and it needs an Internet staff with a vague clue how to engage Web audiences in a meaningful way. More than that, though, the publisher ought to understand why the credibility of his paper and the viability of the enterprise rests on sometimes pissing off major local companies and powerful leaders. I find it hard to imagine a guy whose career has involved sucking up to advertisers will get that.
For all their flaws, Frederick and Mitchell are genuine newspapermen. R-J reporters may have been frustrated by being understaffed and underpaid, but they knew their bosses had their backs. Under them, the company sued countless times for access to public records, and Mitchell offered a First Amendment seminar every week in his Sunday columns.
There is hope, however dim. Brown must hire a new editor to replace Mitchell. If he’s gutsy—or careless?—he’ll get someone from the outside who can take a top-to-bottom look at the place. Anyone who does will see that dramatic changes are necessary if this enterprise is to survive the dramatic changes gripping the industry. The Web staff must be replaced, the embarrassingly errant Mason-Dixon polling firm must be fired and the dullsville features department needs a radical overhaul.
Sadly, I expect Brown to pluck some acquiescent toady from one of Stephens’ other papers. And as much of a bummer as the Frederick-Mitchell epoch has been, it may one day be a thing of nostalgia.