Friday, January 29, 2010

More on the CityLife-Sun Drama

The prior post drew a response from CityLife publisher Geoff Schumacher. It actually sparked another line of thought that I had overlooked to begin with. So, first, here's part of Geoff's response, which is in the comments of the other item:

Amy wrote a story about Greenspun Media Group, which recently earned national acclaim when it won a Pulitzer Prize, brought in a nationally recognized web authority, then promptly fell apart, laying off workers, losing other key players and closing various publications. It was not a story about the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which did not win a Pulitzer, did not hire a nationally recognized web authority and did not fall apart. I'm not clear on why you think this story should have been something other than what it was.

I'm sure a fine story could be written about the Review-Journal, and perhaps it will be by CityLife or some other news organization. But the news peg for this particular story was crystal clear and needn't have been something other than what it was.

So here's the thing. Kingsley's piece makes many assumptions about why Greenspun Media Group hit its rocky shoal, all of them focusing on journalism. Schumacher does the same. What Kingsley overlooked and Schumacher forgets is that the Sun has never been a profitable publication, not when Hank Greenspun started it and probably not for the vast majority of its life including recent years. And definitely not when they won their Pulitzer.

The Las Vegas Sun and most of the GMG publications have been propped up for all this time by the Greenspun family fortune. It is only because THAT has faltered that suddenly economic realities have hit them. Sure, was an abject failure and yes, there are disgruntled people, but the Greenspuns are heavily invested in THREE businesses that have fallen apart right when Curley & Co were trying to make their big splash: Real estate (American Pacific), gaming (Station Casinos) and media (Tribune Co as well as GMG publications).

GMG won its Pulitzer because the Greenspuns were willing to ignore the fact that their media operations bled like Roy after a tiger bite. But Kingsley's piece suggests that all of their problems came because of bad journalistic decisions or, at least, doesn't present the whole picture of this company, its fiscal history and other explanations for its problems.

Fact is, it was largely a function of economic forces and all sorts of bad decisions far away from their newsrooms. The proof is found in how many people they retained and hired when they went from being a full-service newspaper to an eight-page insert that really, on its best days, was only 5.5 pages of original copy. That didn't make economic sense, but they kept on keeping on. The balance sheets had to have looked about as bad then as now.

Thus, if you're only going to judge GMG by their layoffs and the parts they've closed down, you need a yardstick. Is Curley the total failure you make him out to be? I'd need to know the web traffic -- AND HOW IT COMPARES TO ITS COMPETITION FOR CONTEXT -- to be able to say. If the Sun is drawing numbers even close to the R-J's, and I've heard they are despite the discredited sources Sherman Frederick uses to claim his traffic in public, then the effort hasn't been a failure in any other way than that it was unable to make money in the worst economy this city has ever seen.

Furthermore, if you're going to have experts talking about how newspapers misunderstand the challenges of doing video work, how do you not at least in passing acknowledge that this is a problem at both major publications?

Bottom line: If the economy hadn't turned so sour, the Greenspuns would've continued to shovel money into the operations. They always have. In that respect, this piece overlooks an enormous part of the story.


David Elias said...

wow. this completely undermines the entire premise of the piece. congrats. she picked and chose what parts of the greenspun story to tell with a clear agenda of making gmg look bad for investing in new media while the r-j has...hired Bowtie. Without examining the broader problems facing the company and its unsustainable premise, CityLife has really told us nothing. Well done.

Anonymous said...

hey steve, i was just thinking that comparing to in terms of web hits or advertising or whatnot doesn't seem to be the point because the real issue in this story was the amount of money spent on other things from the interactive team, such as i think it's clear from the story that despite all the economic forces (and amy does point out that those exist) if the company had just stuck with making its existing brand websites really great it would have been in better shape than it is now. you can say hindsight is 20/20 but that's a pretty undeniable/uncontroversial statement, and then the question becomes how did we get here, and that's the tale she tells. that's what I got from this story, anyway. said...

For length, I have to split this into two posts. I trust my treatise will be worth the read:

Not dismissing the newsroom side of this, but I saw this article much differently. GMG went about the new ventures entirely the wrong way, spent far more than they had to, and had people who didn't deliver as promised (Rob Curley, Michael Carr, etc).

Before I'm seen simply as spouting off, my credentials are: 1. Running a profitable (and at times very profitable) internet tourism venture since 1997 and 2. Long time acquaintances with staff and air talent of a tourism TV network that covers and is broadcast (over-the-air) in six popular destinations including Atlanta and New Orleans.


Per RJ vs Sun web traffic, that is hard to find out. However... of interest is that The Sun evidently was participating with third party web traffic service Quantcast and apparently opted out:

That is very fishy. Quantcast doesn't lie, and they only reason you'd opt out (in my view) is if you have something to hide. (Ours is at and under-reports because we don't track our co-branded sites for tickets and more). will let you compare sites (although their sampling method isn't that great) and the RJ and Sun sites seem to run pretty much neck-and-neck:
and use the Compare box under the graph by entering


Curley seemed to go nuts with the budget. Fixed the place up like romper room, hired former cronies. You don't need video games to get people excited about working on Las Vegas projects. Are you kidding me? People beg to be involved in this stuff both because it looks good on their resume and the VIP status GMG employees enjoy on various levels.

Plus... I bet Steve will admit that doing journalism and new media here is a lot more fun than doing it somewhere else. I know that wouldn't move from Las Vegas for double what I make now. You may have to pamper new media employees in D.C. But not here. said...

Curley was tasked with doing the impossible: Making a web news site profitable. I'll cut him some slack there. The question is... once he started to see the writing on the wall, was a misstating the numbers just to save face? To keep his cronies in jobs?

No question they went way to heavy into streaming video and if I recall, many of those jobs were cut months and months ago.

--------------------------- was a bad move and I don't say that as Monday morning quarterback. Somehow they have overestimated the celeb/Vegas appeal. Yes... people around the world are curious when an interesting celeb situation happens here. BUT... you can't make a nightly newscast out of Vegas fluff (whether advertorial or not).

The public has a limit to how much info they want tossed at them. I found that out when I expanded my newsletter to twice-weekly for a while 5 years ago. Too much.

Here's the direction that should have been taken, and why I'm in shock that they didn't: Las Vegas One should have been turned into as a 24/7 tourism information channel. Like those that run in other destinations. The same pieces (many of which are evergreen) run over and over with a little bit of new content added each week.

You can do these things with a bare-bones staff. Literally one full-time videographer/editor, one full-time air talent who does research and writing, and a handful of cheap but good, eager freelance air talents brought in for various pieces. I won't go further into the mechanics or why Channel 19 would be successful at the above because I'm not here to give GMG (or anyone else) a free business plan. But the model works successfully (done properly) all over the nation.


I have no disagreement that the Greenspuns are to be lauded for doing all they have done out-of-pocket. Shame for them (although I'm not crying any tears) that their goals with the Sun website and could have been accomplished at a fraction of the cost. And... when you keep costs low, you make money. Somehow they (as a company) seem to think that every venture they get into requires millions to get rolling. They think wrong. And that led to the downfall.