Six of the seven current and former members of the Las Vegas Review-Journal staff will speak at Medill on Friday at 11 a.m. in the McCormick Tribune Foundation Forum (1870 Campus Drive). They are the recipients of the 2015 James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for their coverage of the newspaper’s sale to the family of billionaire casino executive Sheldon Adelson. James DeHaven, Eric Hartley, Jennifer Robison, John L. Smith, Howard Stutz and James G. Wright will receive their medals and talk to the Northwestern community about their experience.
The announcement in December 2015 that the newspaper had been sold to a new and unnamed holding company, News + Media Capital Group LLC, sparked instant controversy, said Managing Editor Glenn Cook, who nominated the staff for Medill’s award.
“Everyone knew immediately that the anonymous purchase of a major daily American newspaper was unprecedented, and that secret ownership of the Review-Journal created an immediate ethical and credibility crisis not just for the newspaper, but for everyone employed by it,” Cook said. “How could reporters disclose potential conflicts of interest if they didn’t know who they worked for? How could readers trust them?”
Review-Journal staff quickly learned that reporting on their new owners would be difficult because, under the deal, GateHouse had been retained to operate the newspaper. Without telling the newsroom, someone at the GateHouse Media Design Center in Austin, Texas, ordered the Review-Journal’s presses stopped so quotes from News + Media Capital Group LLC Manager Michael Schroeder and then-Editor Mike Hengel could be removed from a story announcing the sale.
Reporters James DeHaven, Howard Stutz and Jennifer Robison, led by Deputy Editor James G. Wright, worked their sources until the shell company started to crack. An editorial by Cook (who at the time was the Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer) compared the lack of transparency in local teacher contract talks to his own paper’s lack of openness. Finally, on Dec. 16, the R-J was ready to report that Adelson’s son-in-law was behind the purchase. The scoop was ready to publish online at 2:30 p.m. but it languished, awaiting clearance from management. At 7:25 p.m., Hengel ordered the story posted.
What followed was an admission, after a previous denial, by new owner Adelson that while he was behind the purchase with his son-in-law, he had no plans to involve himself in the management of the newspaper.
But revealing the newspaper’s new ownership was “merely one milestone in the bizarre and still-unraveling story,” according to Cook.
The month prior to the sale, GateHouse Media moved three Review-Journal reporters off their beats to monitor three judges, including Clark County District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, whose caseload included lawsuits against Adelson and his casino company, Las Vegas Sands Corp. GateHouse executives made the assignment as they were negotiating the sale of the Review-Journal to Adelson’s family. No reason for the assignment was given, according to Cook, and the reporters’ efforts resulted in a diary of court proceedings but no content for the paper. Meanwhile, just before the sale announcement, Schroeder’s small newspaper in New Britain, Conn., inexplicably had published an article by “Edward Clarkin” that savaged Gonzalez.
The puzzle pieces snapped together. Wright’s team, joined by reporter Eric Hartley, linked the R-J sale and the reporters’ courtroom monitoring, but the story languished for two days. Gatehouse relented after other media heard about the quashed article, allowing publication on Dec. 18. Those developments led to a front-page editorial by Cook vowing the newspaper would disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
“You can be assured that if the Adelsons attempt to skew coverage, by ordering some stories covered and others killed or watered down, the Review-Journal's editors and reporters will fight it,” the editorial read. “We will fight for your trust. Every. Single. Day. Even if our former owners and current operators don't want us to.”
Columnist John L. Smith produced another piece describing his own experience with Adelson, who years before had sued Smith for libel, unsuccessfully, as Smith’s daughter was battling brain cancer. Smith followed with a blistering column questioning the new owners’ wisdom in associating with Schroeder. A short time later, Schroeder was dumped by the Adelsons as the shell company’s manager.
On Dec. 22, Editor Michael Hengel was told his request for early retirement had been granted. Hengel had not applied for early retirement.
By May 16, 2016, six of the seven journalists involved in the coverage had left the newspaper or announced plans to resign.