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News landscape in Las Vegas undergoing historic shift

It may not rival the Comstock Lode, which brought record numbers of prospectors to Nevada.

Or even those wild days when California speculators gobbled up houses and sent the local real estate market into a tailspin.

But in recent months outside interests have gone on an unprecedented buying spree, leaving most Las Vegas media outlets under new management.

Since November:

■ Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, which already owned local stations KVCW and KVMY, added KSNV-TV, Channel 3, to its portfolio.

■ Nexstar Broadcasting Group, based in Irving, Texas, bought KLAS-TV, Channel 8.

■ Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co. took over KTNV-TV, Channel 13, on Wednesday.

■ And the Las Vegas Review-Journal was sold to New York-based New Media Investment Group, whose operating arm is GateHouse Media.

What does all that churn mean for consumers in Las Vegas?

Let’s take a look at the broadcast realm, which has seen the most change.

CUTTING COSTS

Representatives of the broadcast companies naturally paint a rosy picture. Look for the ownership changes to mean more local news, they say, including newscasts on channels that don’t currently have them, and some efforts that may not follow a traditional format or be on TV at all.

Yet local media veterans fear darker times ahead. Nervous anchors and reporters are wondering whether they’ll survive, considering that “the writing is on the wall that cheaper is better” at KSNV and Nexstar “has a history of slashing and burning.”

They point to Nexstar’s first moves since taking over: Grounding Chopper 8 and laying off its regular occupant, reporter Ken Smith, after eight years with the station.

But Bob Stoldal, who retired as KSNV executive vice president of news operations in October, said he believes the answers lie somewhere in between.

“I think that over the next year, we’re going to see what the reality is,” he said. “And I think that the new owners are going to take the next year to really understand what this marketplace is all about.”

Stoldal has been through ownership changes. He was at KLAS in 1968, the first time it was sold — by Hank Greenspun to Howard Hughes. He also spent time at what is now KTNV during his more than four decades in Las Vegas TV newsrooms.

Viewers, he said, should be on the lookout for gradual changes to the political slant of local TV news. There’s also a question of whether they’ll live up to the media’s mandate as a government watchdog or veer toward fluff. But Stoldal said he doesn’t expect “a significant change in any of the primary anchors or reporters,” at least for the next six months to a year.

“There is an expectation in the audience that local television needs to provide them with breaking news,” Stoldal said. “I want to believe that they’re going to be more informed.”

DIGITAL FIRST

The biggest change in local media actually has little to do with the recent transactions. It’s immediacy, and the fact that news outlets that once served different markets are going beyond their traditional media technology to compete for readers and ad dollars on the Internet.

“We’ll have a lot more digital content than before,” said Steven Pruett, Sinclair’s chief operating officer. “We want to be breaking news online as it breaks, not waiting for the newscast.”

In an about-face, TV stations are flooding their websites with the written word and newspapers are filling theirs with video. The convergence is even changing the way the companies look at themselves.

“What we do every day isn’t just television. … We are a local media company, and part of what we do every day is distribute content on television,” said Brian Lawlor, Scripps’ senior vice president of television. “But a lot of what we do every day is how we distribute content on social and mobile and digital and all those kinds of things.”

In shifting to digital delivery, all news organizations are chasing the dollar.

Advertising money has long financed print and broadcast operations, but those ads are increasingly following the eyeballs to computer screens. Last December, the website Business Insider predicted that digital ad spending will outpace broadcast buys for the first time in 2017, when advertisers will spend $74 billion on digital and $69 billion on traditional broadcast. In 2013, the split was $43 billion digital and $75 billion broadcast.

And each each major news event increasingly makes it clear that all media companies are also competing with everyone who owns a cellphone. If you have a social media account, you’re suddenly a news resource. And you’re providing that news for free.

Regardless of their individual plans, the new owners of Las Vegas news stations all face the same challenge.

“People are still trying to figure out how to generate revenue locally from a news website,” Stoldal said.

Compounding the problem: Online advertising is far more competitive and fractured, bringing in pennies against each dollar a station or newspaper takes in from ads on their traditional platforms.

ON-AIR CHANGES

The changing landscape of Las Vegas broadcast news has been most profound at Channel 3.

Jim Rogers, the station’s longtime owner, decided in 2013 that “doing local news and doing a lot of it” was the key “to survive whatever the future is of local television,” Lisa Howfield, KSNV general manager, said at the time.

As a result, the station began dumping entertainment programming such as “Days of Our Lives” and syndicated offerings such as “Wheel of Fortune” and started airing local news from 3 to 8 p.m., interrupted only by “NBC Nightly News.”

Rogers died in June. Sinclair paid $120 million for the property and took control in November. The new owners quickly reinstated “Days of Our Lives,” added back-to-back episodes of “Family Feud” and canceled the local news and opinion shows “Ralston Reports,” “What’s Your Point?” and “Vegas Inc.”

It wasn’t a retreat from local news. The station’s noon newscast was expanded to an hour, and a half-hour of news was added at 6:30 p.m.

“We found that our news is somewhat more effective if we have some level of break,” Pruett said of the changes.

“I think Jim had the right idea, and what we’ve done is just sort of defined it better and put the right players in the right places,” he added. “And just be a little more strategic about how we program.”

“The restructuring was really identifying the opportunities and clearly identifying the mission of every newscast,” said Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s vice president of news. “I think there’s a real opportunity for us, and I think you’re going to see us expanding our news presence.”

With multiple broadcast stations in the market, Sinclair can go deep with news while not displacing entertainment on KSNV. For example, last month Sinclair broadcast the entire memorial service for former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian live on KVMY-TV, Channel 21.

“We were able to provide comprehensive coverage on our newscast, and then we carried the memorial service on (Channel 21),” Livingston said. “It was a great opportunity for us to leverage our strength across all of our stations and all of our platforms.”

Sinclair operates 162 stations in 79 markets and is, Pruett said, “the largest producer of local news in the country,” at 2,100 hours per week on its stations.

Livingston said that count will increase.

“We can provide even more local content. That’s what we’re focusing on,” he said. “Owning the big story, owning the breaking story, being able to share content throughout the day on all platforms.”

Additionally, Stoldal expects Sinclair will “invest in making this a significant operation to service all of their other stations with entertainment news.”

Neither Pruett nor Livingston would divulge a timeline, but stressed that sharing content and, eventually, newscasts with KSNV’s sister stations, KVMY and KVCW-TV, Channel 33, is a priority.

The biggest difference between KSNV’s former and current owners is ideological. Rogers was proudly liberal. Sinclair is, well, not. Sinclair stations famously pre-empted prime-time programming two weeks before the 2004 presidential election to air a controversial program critical of Democratic nominee John Kerry’s actions during the Vietnam era.

“This marketplace, certainly from a television standpoint, has not had its editorial content pushed either to the right or to the left. We’ll see if that changes,” Stoldal said.

“Our content choices may differ now,” Livingston said. “When I say that, maybe there were stories that were ignored that won’t be ignored moving forward.”

Asked for examples, he replied, “We won’t shy away from telling the truth and getting to the truth. And I’m not saying that was being done prior to Sinclair, but … moving forward, it’s going to be doing some of those tough stories and asking those tough questions that our viewers would ask — and not being afraid to hold public officials accountable regardless of whether they have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ by their name.”

IN TRANSITION

Nexstar agreed to buy KLAS from Landmark Media Enterprises for $145 million in November, but the deal didn’t close until Feb. 13.

Speaking last month, Brian Jones, Nexstar’s executive vice president and co-chief operating officer, was uncomfortable talking about changes that have been made or will be made.

“I really don’t have a strategic plan to share with you,” he said. “It is an excellent television station that we are extremely pleased to be involved with. But as far as the strategic planning and tactical execution, I think that’s a conversation that we’re not ready to have right now.”

Other conversations he wasn’t ready to have included whether Nexstar plans to add newscasts, cut back newscasts or provide more content online — all deemed “premature.”

“We’re in the process of learning all we can learn about the station and all of the good things that they have going on there,” said Jones, who didn’t respond to a request for a follow-up interview.

The company’s decision to ground the KLAS helicopter, leaving KSNV as the only news presence in the valley’s airspace, is easily the most public change at any of the local organizations. Dumping Chopper 8 wasn’t a strategic move, however. It was all about the budget.

“The helicopter contract had expired, and we chose not to renew it,” Jones said. “As you can imagine, it is a very, very expensive tool. And with all of the other tools that the station has at their disposal, we didn’t feel that it was necessary to have a helicopter on 24/7 call.”

By some estimates the move cut overhead by at least $500,000 per year. Jones made no promises about using the money elsewhere in the newsroom.

“I don’t really want to get into the discussion of our financial execution,” he said. “I think I would just say that it’s part of allocating our resources and doing the best possible job of covering local news that we can.”

Speaking generally about Nexstar, Jones said, “Local news is probably the top priority of our company.”

He also touted the benefits of KLAS’ move from Landmark, where it was the only TV station in the company portfolio, to Nexstar, which operates 107 stations in 58 markets.

“A station that comes into our company immediately has additional assets and resources that they can use to do all the things that they want to do and to get better,” Jones said, citing corporate help with production, promotion and engineering.

“A lot of the stations they own are from smaller markets,” Stoldal said, “which means they really know how to deal with the community. That’s really the upside to it. If they bring that and really get involved in the community, I think we’re going to be fine. But if they think the community … is only the five miles of the Strip, then we’ve got an issue.”

Nexstar’s goal for KLAS, Jones said, boils down to one word: growth.

“Growth is, I think, what our short-term goals and our long-term goals are,” he said, “And that’s growth in audience, that’s growth in revenue, that’s growth in involvement in the community. And that’s how we measure success.”

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Scripps was the first of the media companies to announce its local transaction, saying in July it would essentially swap its newspapers across the country for Journal Communications’ TV stations. After a lengthy approval process, Scripps took control of KTNV, a station Lawlor said the company is “really excited about,” just last week.

Asked if Scripps, which operates 33 stations in 27 markets, plans more or fewer newscasts on KTNV, the executive replied “Certainly not fewer.”

“It may be that we’re launching newscasts but they’re not on television,” he said. “They may just be mobile-only newscasts.”

“We’re big advocates of the new digital frontier,” Lawlor said. “I think we spend a lot more time looking out at mobile, social, digital as tools for engaging with the local audience … We’ll certainly do training and expect the staff to become even more active in the mobile and digital space.”

And even the traditional broadcast news platform — actual broadcasting — may look different.

Lawlor singled out KTNV’s local infotainment shows “Valley View Live!” and “The Morning Blend,” calling them “evolutions of news that just are ways to engage a different audience.”

Still, he stressed, “We take our journalism pretty seriously, and we hold our newsroom employees and our presentation to high ethical and journalistic standards.”

As for the newscasts themselves, Lawlor struck a more traditional tone.

“Our foundations are built on quality journalism, engaged storytelling, enterprise reporting. We have a big investigative focus, making sure that we’re holding leaders of communities accountable and being a watchdog for the community,” he said. “So I think those are very much the foundations of how our company has approached our commitment to local communities over decades. And I expect that we’ll bring that very much to Las Vegas.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @life_onthecouch

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