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New Era for Two Warring Vegas Papers

September 10, 1989|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Some of those Hank Greenspun afflicted during his life have a joke that they tell even now.

At his funeral in July, a crowd of more than 1,200--gamblers, politicians, friends and employees--came to stand in the 100-degree desert sun. Some were there to say farewell, the joke goes, others to make sure he was really dead.

But a month later, Greenspun had the last laugh. The one-time gun smuggler for Israel who ran a newspaper here, called Joe McCarthy a homosexual in print without any proof, sued the state's most powerful politician for conspiracy and won, and ran a sting operation on the sheriff, showed them he wasn't quite as dead as they thought.

Hours before he died, it was announced on Aug. 8, Greenspun's family had signed a deal to keep his flagrant but failing newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun, alive for another 50 years. The Sun would merge business operations with the town's other paper, the profitable Las Vegas Review Journal, but maintain separate news and editorial staffs.

Greenspun was gone, but his irascible or damnable, crusading or abusive, anything-but-timid newspaper was not.

The agreement still must win federal exemption from antitrust laws. And many believe, if the two papers become partners, that the furious Sun will change its ways, in part because Hank's son, Brian, a gentler soul than his father, is running it. Brian had to sign over $20 million worth of family stock in the local cable franchise to make the deal and gets just 10% of the papers' combined profit in return.

But even if the Sun changes, the merger will preserve a competition that once was among the meanest, weirdest, most raucous and--by modern standards--most unethical newspaper wars ever seen.

It was a war, really, of two men, the two papers' owners, and their two different philosophies of life.

One was Herman "Hank" Greenspun, the Brooklyn-born lawyer who came to Las Vegas in 1946 fresh from the Army hoping to start a race track and who became a celebrated crusader instead.

The other is Donald W. Reynolds, an Oklahoma-bred son of a poor grocery peddler who parlayed $300 into a media company so private that few have heard of it. Yet Donrey (for Don Reynolds) Media Group owns more daily and weekly newspapers around the country than giant Gannett Co.

Carried Gold Cards

And as the owner of every dime's worth of stock, the reclusive 82-year-old Reynolds, who moves constantly among his seven homes, is one of America's 55 billionaires.

Between them there was real dislike, honestly felt. In print, Greenspun usually referred to Reynolds as "Uncle Piggy." Friends say that in private, Reynolds described Greenspun with expletives. In public, he cleaned it up and just called him "Vermin Greenscum."

Nor was either man accused of running a great newspaper. For years, reporters here carried gold cards that entitled them to free meals and drinks at local hotels, and the papers let their advertising departments influence news coverage.

It was in 1949 that Reynolds bought the Review Journal, then just his third newspaper, and promptly tried to break the unions. The paper that Greenspun would buy a year later and call the Sun was actually a strike paper started by Review Journal printers.

The town was small and wide open, a collection of low-slung stucco buildings, a few casinos and, among the new residents, a mobster named Bugsy Siegel with a vision about a city built on the fantasy of greed.

Reynolds ran his newspaper for the same reason--money. He is "strictly a bottom-line operator," said former Review Journal General Manager Bill Wright, the top executive at the paper from 1966 to 1981.

In Reynolds' strategy, the editorial quality of the paper was not a primary concern, and the Review Journal was bland at best, though he always spent money on equipment to get the paper out fast and with a modern look.

Extraordinarily Profitable

Reynolds, who would come to own most of the major media in Nevada and most of the billboards in Las Vegas, is so frugal, employees said, that he has located Donrey's executive offices in a compound with his home so that he can partly deduct his house as a business expense.

As Las Vegas grew, Wright said Reynolds used the paper as "the cow that has financed his empire," acquiring tiny papers in places like Arkadelphia, Ark., and Oskaloosa, Iowa. Today, the 135,000-circulation Review Journal is as big as almost all the other Donrey papers combined.

And it is extraordinarily profitable. With revenue of more than $70 million and operating profit of more than $20 million a year, according to insiders, the Review Journal is more successful financially than all but a couple of Las Vegas casinos.

Donrey President Fred Smith denies that the company has little concern for news quality. "We are bottom-line oriented," he said. "But we know to have a bottom line you have to have a good product."

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