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EDITORIAL: Why we want to stop printing the Las Vegas Sun

Updated August 30, 2019 - 1:10 am

The Las Vegas Review-Journal on Thursday took the first steps toward ending its business relationship with the Las Vegas Sun.

We are asking a court to rule that the Sun has not met a contractual obligation to produce a high-quality metropolitan print newspaper. Furthermore, the failed agreement between the companies, struck 30 years ago, is obsolete in the 21st-century media landscape and makes it impossible for the partnership to succeed.

The court action taken by the Review-Journal in no way seeks to put the Sun out of business. We want to stop printing and distributing the Sun’s edition with the Review-Journal.

The Sun would be free to have someone else print, sell and distribute their newspaper, if they wish. The Sun has a website loaded with breaking news and timely features, as well as sister publications that are filled with content produced by Sun staff. The vast majority of this content never appears in the printed Sun edition, anyway.

And that’s a major reason why we’re bringing this court action. In our opinion, the Sun’s print edition is a stale combination of dated wire service stories and columns packaged around a couple of staff reports and photos that are sometimes a week old.

Only on the rarest of occasions does the Sun’s print edition publish breaking news from the day before. And the Sun forfeits its editorial and opinion page space on an almost daily basis, running more wire service columns and editorials than Sun-produced editorials or local voices.

You can look at it yourself and see if you agree.

We believe this imbalance violates the terms of the companies’ partnership and undermines the overall quality of the combined Review-Journal/Sun print edition. Worse, it undermines the interests of the community itself and the public trust placed in local news organizations. Local journalism is as important as the institutions that news outlets cover. Quality local news is essential to a functioning democracy and keeping government entities accountable to taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the agreement between the Review-Journal and Sun is a relic, even by newspaper industry standards. The vast majority of such cost-saving newspaper agreements, which were common in cities across America when readers had few other sources of news and opinion, are long gone because they weren’t economically sustainable.

Today, between websites, email blasts, social media, cable and satellite television, streaming services and other printed options, Americans have never had more choices for national and local news and opinions.

The lawsuit we are seeking to file is based on several claims. Here are three of them:

■ The agreement that requires the Review-Journal to print the Sun also obligates the two newspapers to “preserve the high standards of newspaper quality … consistent with United States metropolitan daily newspapers.” We agreed on this provision so neither publication could drag down the quality of their jointly distributed print product. In our opinion, quality big-city newspapers provide daily breaking news stories, sports and business coverage, accountability and watchdog journalism, investigations, local editorials and columns, community listings, local photography and graphic illustrations and local obituaries. We will ask a jury, made up of people like you, whether they think the Sun newspaper has lived up to its promise. In our opinion, the printed Sun does not preserve these high standards.

■ The Sun has failed to work with the Review-Journal to make the combined printed newspapers the best they can be. Notably, the Sun saves its breaking news and some of its best work for its website and sister publications, starving the printed Sun of quality, timely local journalism.

■ The Sun uses its print edition to promote its business interests outside the agreement, and has used its newspaper to discourage readers from subscribing to the printed Review-Journal and Sun.

The Review-Journal lives up to its contractual obligation to produce a quality metropolitan newspaper — every single day. Each edition is full of breaking news stories, enterprise reporting, investigative journalism, local commentary and RJ-written editorials in addition to current news from around the country and the world.

The Sun produces about 240 pages of content per month. The pages have no advertisements, so there is substantial daily space for stories, photos and features. Although the Sun newspaper is much smaller than the Review-Journal’s daily print edition, we believe the substandard quality of the Sun is obvious.

Just look at the Sun’s July editions. With all that room and all the content produced for the Sun’s website, the Sun chose to print just over 40 staff news stories, about 30 local opinion articles and fewer than 20 local photo pages. That’s an average of about one and a half local news stories and one local opinion piece per day in July. We believe this does not meet the standard of metropolitan daily American newspapers.

To achieve these low newspaper story counts, the Sun must withhold reports every day — especially local stories of great importance to the community.

On Aug. 22, lasvegassun.com provided coverage of a heated Clark County School Board meeting that addressed the possibility of a teachers strike. The story was not published in the next day’s Sun newspaper and hadn’t been published through Thursday.

Other stories that appear in the Sun newspaper are so old they lose relevance. For example, on Aug. 15, lasvegassun.com posted an article about a petition filed the day before (Aug. 14) that had the potential to derail a controversial proposal to open protected lands to development. The story did not appear in the printed Sun until a week later, on Aug. 22. Similarly, an article about the impact the reorganization of the Bureau of Land Management would have on Nevadans appeared at lasvegassun.com on Aug. 14 but did not appear in the printed Sun until Aug. 21.

Other stories found at lasvegassun.com include award-winning coverage of the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip that appeared in a sister magazine but not in the Sun newspaper. Still more stories that piled up awards for Las Vegas Weekly and the now-defunct magazine The Sunday appear at lasvegassun.com, but were not printed in the Sun newspaper.

Rather than print any of this content in the Sun newspaper, the Sun pays extra for the wire service stories that are published in place of available local stories.

The result of this practice is gain for the Sun — to the detriment of the Review-Journal, the companies’ partnership and you, our readers. It’s a big reason we think a court will rule the companies’ agreement should be terminated.

The contract the Review-Journal and Sun entered into is called a Joint Operating Arrangement. The agreement exists under the umbrella of the federal Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970.

Originally negotiated in 1989, the Las Vegas agreement was amended in 2005, converting the Sun from a weekday afternoon newspaper to a daily presence within the Review-Journal.

When the Las Vegas agreement was revised, no one could have foreseen the devastating economic pressures and changes in technology that have eroded demand for printed newspapers while significantly increasing production costs. Free online classified advertising, the industry-crippling explosion of social media, myriad digital advertising alternatives and high-speed internet access to touch-screen mobile phones have radically transformed media companies around the world.

The Las Vegas agreement is one of only five remaining in the United States. Twenty-two similar agreements have been terminated — in cities ranging from Seattle and San Francisco to Denver, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Nashville and Detroit — because the partnerships ceased to make financial sense.

Without a court judgment that the Sun has failed to live up to its promises, the agreement will be in force for 20 more years and will cause further harm to the combined newspaper and the community.

The Review-Journal is not trying to silence print competition. Far from it. An aspiration of the Newspaper Preservation Act is the safeguarding of multiple editorial voices so communities get different local perspectives from their news sources.

But readers have nearly unlimited options for news and opinion today, and the Sun newspaper hands over much of its space to out-of-market wire service columns and editorials at the expense of local voices. No, we are not trying to shut down the Sun. We are embracing the vision of the Newspaper Preservation Act and pushing the Sun to stand up on its own.

For the time being, you’ll notice no change in your combined Review-Journal/Sun edition. But you’re bound to hear more about this case in the days, weeks and months to come, and we wanted to let you know from the start what is happening and why it is happening.

We expected the Sun to take more pride in its print product and publish its best work there.

We expected the Sun to fulfill its obligation to provide a daily local voice that gave readers an alternative local perspective.

We expected the Sun to deliver a truly local print newspaper that attempted to compete with the Review-Journal.

But the Sun has decided to produce a print edition that we believe isn’t worth printing. So we are going to ask a court to hold the Sun responsible for the promises it has made, and we will continue to print the Sun until a court says we can stop. We care deeply about the community and the trust you place in us every day to report the news that is essential to you, our readers. And we promise you the Review-Journal will always live up to the highest standards of journalism for our community.

The views expressed above are those of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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