Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Review-Journal, Meet the 21st Century

(Disclosure: I worked for the R-J from 1996-99 and have written for CityLife, owned by parent Stephens Media Group. I'm a regular contributor to two Greenspun Media Group magazines. Greenspun owns the Sun.)

I just had a piece on Harrah's decision to 86 the R-J from its properties posted on the New York Times' The Lede blog for which I had a lengthy, wide-ranging and very interesting conversation with Review-Journal publisher Sherman Frederick.

As always, not everything of interest fit in the piece or was appropriate to include. But in the process, the publisher of "Nevada's largest newspaper," as he himself said immediately when he called me back, opened up wide about some significant changes about to come.

1. The Beast Gets Hungrier. The most important change is that by June, reporters will be expected to file material for the Web roughly every THREE hours. Being a former R-J scribe who didn't much like my workload tampered with (so I went freelance partly to be paid for every additional piece of work), I asked Frederick whether the reporters would be receiving any pay boost in the process. I think he laughed.

Uh, no. "I don’t think there's any need for that. Unless people have to work longer, I don’t see that as a primary issue." Sorry, everyone! Your output was just tripled! At least you're not getting outsourcing as the folks in this clip were. Yet.

(Aside: I remember being very bitter around 1998 when I was covering the county government beat and we were suddenly told we had to contribute, for free, to a new afternoon e-mail blast from then-R-J pundit Jon Ralston. Several of us were so ticked off that we tried to undermine the project by forwarding the emails every day to people who we knew would otherwise subscribe. Evidently since then, I've come to embrace this newfangled technology. Also, I grew up. Forgive me, Jon.)

Frederick explained the thinking behind the changes so: "Right now, our reporters have one deadline per day. That’s how we’ve done it now, that’s the way we’ve done it for 50 years. We’re going to do a three-hour deadline, posting stories continuously throughout the day." Maybe that's how they've been doing it for 50 years, but most major papers scrapped that model about 5 years ago.

2. About The Godawful R-J Site: Frederick mentioned there's a lot of criticism of the look and functionality of his site, that even some inside the paper think ReviewJournal.Com is "thick." I informed him I have been one of those critics, that it looks like the work of technologists, not journalists or artists.

I asked if a redesign is in the offing and he said no major overhaul is currently in the works although they've already started adding more breaking news bulletins and they have a prominent box advertising some new blogs, including one by Frederick. That's progress in and of itself; an R-J reporter two years ago told me that the top newsroom editors "don't believe in blogs."

3. And About That Delovely Sun Site: The new website for the Sun, the R-J's crosstown rival and JOA partner, looks beautiful. But, Frederick asserted, it's also a bit of a failure. Traffic spiked for a few days after they rolled out the sensational new redesign, but then it fell to back to pre-launch levels. He's right. According to this graph from Alexa.Com, the Sun's traffic is even lower than a year ago. Or click on this graph to below to enlarge a comparison of R-J and Sun web hits.

"They spent a lot of money to do that, but the statistics are crystal clear," he said. "They instituted the redesign and their eyeballs went down. I know the journalist community swoons over that. It’s pretty. It’s got bells. It’s got whistles. And it's got less viewership than they did before." (I'm emailing folks at the Sun for response to this. As we know, they don't respond all that much, though.) Frederick noted that, doing nothing, the R-J remains the biggest news website in Nevada.

This reflects a problem many always had with the paper, that it's too complacent and feeds too easily off of the fat of this boomtown. The paper's a cash cow -- Frederick even said they've seen no classified ad decline caused by the rise of Craigslist -- so who cares if they have only one overworked reporter to cover the nation's fifth largest school district when most newspapers of this size and smaller have teams of education writers? Who cares if there are Pulitzers left unwon in this town? Who cares if the features section in the Entertainment Capital of the World is largely populated by wire copy? To quote a certain reviled public official much admired by the R-J editorial page staff, "So?"

4. A special edition for the Strip? For many years now the traditional R-J has been ensconced in a special tourist wrap-around with travel advice, show information and Norm! to entice Strip-area buyers uninterested in the doings of the North Las Vegas City Council. It hasn't really worked all that well. Aside from the meager 600 copies of the paper sold at 24 Harrah's locations until the company booted them, the paper generally sells about 7,000 copies at newsstands around what's referred to as "the resort corridor." On any given day, more than 150,000 people can be staying in the same area, a city unto itself. Frederick has been pondering how to address that, given that there's an unfilled niche for tourists looking for daily content about the Strip that currently they can only get from such weekly publications as Las Vegas Magazine.

"We’ve had extensive discussions that maybe we should create a tab to target visitors," he said. "It’s still something that sits on the drawing board." There's also some consideration being given to resort-corridor distribution. There aren't any newspaper boxes on the Strip, partly because of the county's efforts to reduce the sidewalk clutter created by porn leafleteers, but Frederick says the day may come when he's got newspaper hawkers on the sidewalks selling the paper. I don't know about that, but the fact is, he's right: This city should totally have something like the New York Post, something cheeky and irreverent and easy to handle and sexy and thoroughly insulting to the intelligence. Potential Page Three girls are everywhere!

There was more from the Frederick discussion, but I'll blog it later or tomorrow. That's enough for now. I have to prep for tonight's live version of "The Strip" podcast. Join us in the chat at lvrocks.com at 6 pm PT!


Anonymous said...

i can't believe i work for such a cheapskate. how pathetic. painful. my apologies to the readers. you deserve better.

Vanessa said...

Well now, it would seem that Don Reynolds would be proud. Stephens Media isn't far removed at from DonRey.
Do more, do it faster and do it better and no there won't be any additional monitary renumeration. You can rest in peace, Mr. Reynolds.

a one-time don-rey writer.............

mike_ch said...

I keep saying our subscription is through, but something (usually the Sun, or the sports pages, or the restaurant ratings) keeps dragging me back. No more. When I say we're through, I mean it this time.

Hey, Sherm, you want to be a success in a realm where more and more industries are failing? How about you make a paper for the people who live here rather than out-of-towners on the internet or the folks spending the night at the Luxor?

You won't, because that would mean making a better R-J since everybody in town sees it for what it is, so better to hawk it to people from elsewhere who are more prone to pick up the LA Times and their other hometown papers instead of yours.

That's why you added even more unreadable Strip celebrity garbage on page 3 on the days when Norm! (is there a punctuation mark that expresses disinterest or boredom, like Norm? or Norm. or Norm; or...) isn't here to tell us who Criss Angel's PR department called in to say he's sleeping with tonight.

I could go on, but it's not worth it, and it would use up enough material that I could use to fill an I Hate Las Vegas (And Here's Why) book in the future.

LinFromNJ said...

Yes they make a crappy wrap-around for tourists with stuff you can find in any of the free magazines, then charge a buck for this edition crap. that's why I won't buy the RJ in any hotel. If it pick it up at all it will be at the airport or a convenience store. I like looking at a local paper when I'm in an different town. Maybe it's just to compare it to the paper I work at, but also to see what's going on in town.

Anonymous said...

The amazing thing about the graph showing web hits for both the Sun and RJ is that the COMBINED hits are down 30 percent in one year! Geebus kristos. Wasn't it supposed to go the other way?

Gargamello said...

Is the poor economy killing the internets too!? Oh noes. Is nothing sacred.

Anonymous said...

OK, number one: For someone with such a godawful website--thestrippodcast.com--I wouldn't be calling the kettle black...

Second: You reporters are such primadonnas. You're getting paid to write, so write! Sherm is right. As long as he's not asking you to work more hours, you JOB is writing. Find out how nice that is if you're out in the 120 degree heat paving a highway or some lovely job like that.... sheesh...

Third. And finally, I agree with you about his priorities. To have a "Norm"---a true non-event---and then add another gossip writer---Doug Elfman---is truly overkill.

Most major cities with a transit system of any substance---not Las Vegas, that's for sure---have at least one "free" tab. This would be a perfect addition to the strollers for the Strip. But out of the box thinking isn't Sherm's forte, I guess.