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Sleeping with the enemy newspaper

The underdog Las Vegas Sun is being inserted into the rival Review-Journal.

March 08, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — This city's two daily newspapers have been battering each other for more than half a century -- chasing the same stories, fighting over the best journalists and slinging published insults in the particularly plain-spoken manner that Las Vegans seem to love.

So it represented a unique break with tradition last October when an accord launched the joint delivery of the two papers -- the hard news, Libertarian-leaning, advertising-fat Las Vegas Review-Journal wrapped each morning around the feature-oriented, politically liberal, financially struggling Las Vegas Sun.

Economic necessity forced the two papers into a single bundle of newsprint. But if the first five months of joint delivery are any indication, hard feelings and rival views of this booming city will live on. And journalistic quality, often suspect, just might get a boost.

"I just wish it weren't in our newspaper," Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith said of the Sun. "If you get beat by them, it's right there, in your face. And if you beat them on a story, so what? You just beat the insert."

Jon Ralston, a television and newsletter commentator who writes a column for the Sun, retorts that the long-dominant R-J has done little to improve coverage of a region that has more than doubled in population. "The morning paper," he declared in his column, "has grown fat, lazy and arrogant."

The finger-in-your-eye tone of the feud belies the serious issues at stake for the papers and, especially, residents of Southern Nevada. The region's population now tops 1.8 million, and new construction creeps ever-farther into the desert and chocolate-colored hills -- creating wrenching pressure for more water, electricity, roads and schools.

Steve Sebelius, who worked for both papers before becoming editor of the city's alternative City Life weekly, said both dailies need to raise their games. "We need a lot more eyes and a lot more experienced people than we have now watching all this stuff that is changing," Sebelius said, "and to look out for the citizens and the taxpayers."

Old-fashioned feud

The residual wattage powering the Las Vegas newspaper feud comes as little surprise to locals, given the neon fury in which it was born.

Donald W. Reynolds was already a small-time newspaper owner in Oklahoma and Arkansas when he arrived in Las Vegas and bought the paper that would become the flagship in a billion-dollar empire. He renamed it the Review-Journal. A year later, in 1950, Reynolds was fighting with his union printers when they decided to launch a renegade publication. Another relative newcomer, Herman "Hank" Greenspun, bought the upstart (with $1,000 down) and named it the Sun.

The two newspapermen would find much to loathe in each other in the years to come.

In his regular column, Greenspun routinely depicted Reynolds as the parsimonious "Uncle Piggy." Reynolds called his rival "Vermin Greenscum" and lashed out at what he said were his competitor's ample business conflicts. Greenspun volleyed back that Reynolds' critique was like "a eunuch judging a man's lovemaking."

The reclusive Reynolds and the bombastic Greenspun waged war not just on behalf of their papers but sometimes for their much larger business empires. Reynolds would become the billionaire owner of billboard companies, cable television franchises and more than 50 newspapers around the nation. Greenspun's empire centered in Las Vegas, including cable television and the massive Green Valley residential development.

Both men died more than a decade ago, but their competition lives on.

Sherman Frederick, who worked his way up from reporting intern to publisher of the Review-Journal over 30 years, said the Sun's willingness to sign up for the joint distribution deal signaled his paper's hard-earned victory.

"The Review-Journal won because it was the better newspaper," Frederick said, "top to bottom, owner to pressman to beat reporter."

Greenspun's son, Brian, 59, assumed management of the newspaper after his father died in 1989. Rather than a victory for the Review-Journal, he describes the joint distribution deal as a tremendous opportunity for the scrappy underdog.

"The great irony is that the people who tried to destroy my dad for the last 40 years of his life are the people who his paper is joined to, at the hip, for the next 30-plus years," Greenspun said. "And that makes the Sun a better, more impactful newspaper."

Cat and canary

Two-newspaper towns have become increasingly rare, and Las Vegas appeared to be headed toward a single publication. But neither side has been willing to sell out to the other.

Instead, the papers agreed in 1989 to a joint operating agreement that combined advertising and production operations.

Despite the collaboration, the Sun's circulation plummeted like many other afternoon-delivery dailies, reaching a low of 24,154 last year. Even with the region's 116% population growth from 1990 to 2004, the dominant Review-Journal added just 22% more circulation, to 165,208.

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