Friday, November 12, 2010
News just broke that R-J publisher Sherm Frederick is stepping down as publisher of the newspaper and as CEO of Stephens Media and Thomas Mitchell is out as editor. And yet, there's even more to it than that.
Not in their story? Allan B. Fleming, the Review-Journal's general manager, is also out. And Mitchell is getting a new gig created for him, some sort of senior editorial page editor role.
The article published by the R-J announcing this posits that Sherm is leaving for health reasons, and he certainly has had a rough year with surgeries for prostate and heart ailments this summer.
But the real explanation of what's happening here? Harry Reid won.
An extremely knowledgable source at the paper called this move a "shakeout" and a "head slap" from the top, meaning the owners back in Arkansas. He reminded me that the Stephens family are big Washington D.C. players, with banking interests and other issues to deal with in Congress. They may have supported Republican candidates, but the over-the-top efforts by Sherm Frederick and Thomas Mitchell to support Sharron Angle and unrelentingly beat up on the Senate Majority Leader was exceptional. It was nasty and personal and harmed the reporters' ability to have their work taken credibly, but even more importantly, if the Stephens clan wanted to make nice with Harry Reid, the only way to do it was to get rid of Frederick and Mitchell.
It's entertaining that the newspaper tried to soft-pedal this news, leaving out the Fleming angle and reducing to the very last paragraph the fact that Mitchell was also departing from his role. Those are the clues that this is a much bigger change than just an ailing publisher choosing to reduce his stress load.
Two of the announced changes, though, look like Titanic deck chair shuffling. The company's chief operating officer Michael Ferguson ascends CEO of Stephens Media and advertising director Bob Brown will be publisher of the R-J. Brown has no significant journalism experience, and what this paper needs is someone in control of the purse who understands why they need more reporters and more resources. I fear an ad guy won't have that sensibility.
Still, there is one huge reason to be encouraged: They're going out looking for a replacement for Mitchell as editor. That means that for the first time in a couple of decades, that newsroom's leadership will have some serious new energy and ideas.
The stagnation has been crippling. If Stephens is courageous, they will bring in someone young and sharp from the outside who understands (or at least doesn't openly despise) the Internet, who can give that rudderless features section a solid redo, who can advocate for more resources so reporters can spend more time digging into important stories.
Plenty of questions left:
* Will Sherm, who will retain his Sunday column, keep up the feud with the Greenspuns and the Sun, or is there a chance for a little class and maturity to break out in Vegas newspaperland?
* Will the dramatic efforts to sue to protect copyrights continue via Righthaven?
* What becomes of "Director of Visuals" Al Gibes, City Editor Mary Hynes, Features Editor Frank Fertado and Managing Editor Charlie Zobell, all of whom have been in their posts for unusually long stints?
* If Mitchell had been outright fired, would he have filed for
welfare unemployment benefits?