Legal fight triggers memories of old days

I remember fondly the time I spent working as a reporter at the Sacramento Union.

Once the oldest continuously published daily newspaper west of the Mississippi, the Union was the smaller, crosstown rival to the dominant Sacramento Bee. Unlike the Bee, however, we boasted of once having a Mark Twain in our stable of correspondents, and a huge bust of Clemens decorated the lobby.

But the Union had fallen on hard times by the time I arrived in 1990. The shrinking staff left me to cover two beats: courts and City Hall.

But it was a noble enterprise, the scrappy, underdog Union taking on the mighty Bee. And we got some great stories that would have gone uncovered had the Union not existed.

A little more than a year after I left, the newspaper published its final edition, in January 1994. I still have it somewhere, a photo of friends and former colleagues, standing by the building’s iconic sign at the tip of the Capitol Mall. (Sadly, the building was later demolished to make way for a high-rise development that’s never taken shape; I sure hope somebody saved that bust of Twain.)

I found myself thinking about the Union when reading the lawsuit Las Vegas Sun Editor and Publisher Brian Greenspun filed against Stephens Media LLC, the company that owns the Las Vegas Review-Journal. (My escape from Sacramento, ironically, was to the Sun, where I worked from 1993 to 1997, covering police and City Hall.)

Greenspun claims Stephens is trying to kill the Sun by dissolving the joint operating agreement that allows the newspapers to combine some operations and share profits.

As regular readers know, I’m not a lawyer, although I play one on TV and in this space. But my entirely amateur law practice is strictly limited to criminal procedure, administrative procedure and constitutional law; anti-trust violations are outside my sphere of nonexpertise. So I make no judgment about the allegations contained in Greenspun’s lawsuit.

“Please don’t let the LVRJ silence that someone’s (the Sun’s) voice,” Greenspun pleaded in a declaration that accompanies his lawsuit.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that his plea is misdirected; the dissolution of the JOA is an idea proposed by Stephens Media and agreed to in principle by 75 percent of the Greenspun family. It’s still possible to relate to the sentiments behind his words.

I only wish there were someone to whom we could address that plea, someone who had the power to stop the silencing of voices all across the country, to make the public care more about civic life and to make newspapers the dominant source of news once again. Reporters, editors and other employees in cities from Seattle to Richmond, Va., from San Francisco to Miami, have all prayed that same prayer.

But nobody’s listening.

Economics, demographic trends, changes in technology and a cultural shift away from reading news on paper is the culprit silencing newspaper voices from coast to coast. “If the termination of the 2005 [joint-operating agreement] is not enjoined, the Las Vegas Sun will be destroyed,” Greenspun’s lawsuit says. That’s probably true, although erasing the agreement wouldn’t prevent Greenspun from using his own money to compete head-to-head against the Review-Journal, either in print, online or both.

I have many fond memories of my time at the Sun: Working with some great people, including former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, Geoff Schumacher, Scott Dickensheets, Larry Henry, Mike Smith, Jeff Schweers, Steve Kanigher, Ed Koch, Jeff German, Rick Velotta and many others. I learned a great deal in my time there, and if it turns out the end of the JOA means the Sun really does publish its final edition (in print at least), it will be a sad day for Las Vegas and for journalism.

But it won’t be the end — the changes that have been devastating this industry for decades will continue, and we’ll try to apply our old skills in new ways, fondly remembering the old days and painfully recalling those final editions, yellowing in garages and attics, the faces of friends and colleagues smiling against the pain, their pleas to keep voices alive sadly unheard and unanswered.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or