Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The First Words On The New R-J Editor

Could a pay wall be in the offing for the Las Vegas Review-Journal's website?

I have no idea if there are any such plans, but that is the most notable Web-related innovation that incoming R-J Editor Michael Hengel has to his credit as editor and publisher of the Pine Bluff, Ark., Commercial. That ought to make a lot of Vegas cheapskates a little antsy.

I held off on writing about the new editor, announced in yet another news dump by Stephens brass on the day before Thanksgiving, because I wanted a chance to actually, you know, learn something about him. And so I did some checking. He starts on Dec. 6.

As it happens, there's good news and bad news.

The bad news is aforementioned. According to Pine Bluff Commercial managing editor Scott Loftis, Hengel "has some deep convictions about what the future of newspapers is and where the business is going." The Commercial recently put its content behind a pay wall -- it's free for print subscribers, $11 a month for non-subscribers -- so that gives us a fairly good idea of where Hengel thinks it's all going. And he may be right, seeing how other publications are going this route, but that's generally hit this sort of discouraging news -- or encouraging if you're part of the Internet-Must-Be-Free sector.

It's unclear whether a paywall for the R-J would even work with the Las Vegas Sun sitting out there happy to poach the eyeballs that turn away. The Pine Bluff paper has no competition, so far as I can gather, not even from TV stations since it is in the Little Rock regional market. Also, the R-J's site itself would need some dramatic improvements to make it even worth paying for, and the Pine Bluff paper's website is even more primitive so it's unclear Hengel has that in his DNA.

So what's the good news?

For one thing, Mr. Hengel is exceptionally well-liked. Loftis said: "I've been in the journalism business for 22 or 23 years. This is the best boss I’ve ever had. He’s very fair, he’s very respectful. He can make a tough decision when he has to. This guy’s awesome."

OK, so this comes from a guy who still works for him and maybe is being political, although he really seemed earnest and sincere. Sadly, the Pine Bluff paper is fairly small in every way -- 12,000 circulation, four full-time reporters -- so it's not like the sieve that is the R-J, where there's always a few folks willing to gossip off-record.

But what the public in Vegas really wants to know is whether Hengel will arrive with a political or philosophical axe to grind. Former editor Thomas Mitchell, of course, joined obsessive ex-publisher Sherm Frederick in an open jeremiad against Harry Reid, inserting himself into the dynamic of the U.S. Senate race in a way that made his reporters' coverage appear tainted whether it was or not.

What about Hengel? Check out this exchange:

Friess: What do you know about Mike's political views?

Loftis: Nothing, which I think is as it should be.

Friess: Really?

Loftis: I really don’t. Mike has not indicated to me even that he leans one way or the other politically. I haven’t seen any decisions made that would reflect that, either. And I think that’s the way it ought to be.

Well, dang, so do I. An editor who isn't interested in personally being part of the political conversation? What a novel idea!

Another positive bit of news: Hengel understands issues of race. He has to, given that Pine Bluff is majority African-American. There are black city and features editors as well as a black staff writer. Could it be that he's a man who believes his staff ought to reflect the demographics his publication serves? One can hope. I suspect he'll be utterly blinded by how white his new newsroom is, especially given the rapidly changing demographics of Las Vegas.

So far, there are reasons to be optimistic. Hengel kindly wrote back to me via email to postpone an interview with me until he gets his "feet on the ground in Las Vegas." I look forward to it.

"It’s a home run for them," Loftis said. "I know he’s coming from a smaller paper, but this guy is the best I’ve ever been around."

Great. That's a start.


Steve Stern said...

Steve: Good, informative piece. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As an L.A. resident interested in Vegas, I spend much more time reading the Sun online, thanks to more coverage of gambling and casino issues and the usually interesting Kats Report. I do click over to the RJ to check out Norm's column, but that's about it. Maybe there's more fun things to read at the RJ site, but it certainly doesn't do a good job highlighting things to catch your attention.