Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review-Journal Fires Cartoonist, Online Guy, Too

The Associated Press broke news last week that the Review-Journal had eliminated its investigative unit and laid off five reporters. Many, and not in an ironic way, asked: "The R-J had an investigative unit?"

I'll get back to that question -- and the impact of those firings -- in a moment. But first I need to report that the R-J last week also fired its editorial cartoonist of 17 years, Jim Day, and the much-maligned Online Guy, Al Gibes, at right. These are two rather high-profile sackings and comes after, as I reported recently, they also fired the longtime business editor Michael Hiesiger.

The loss of Jim Day fits into a trend of dwindling numbers of staff editorial cartoonists in America's daily newspapers. It was actually surprising that the R-J kept him as long as they did because papers now see resident cartoonists as a luxury. What it means is that from here on, all editorial cartoons on the R-J's op-ed pages will be about national and international topics, not local ones. For that, we'll have to turn to the wonderful Sun cartoonist Mike Smith or that fellow in the View section who lampoons Oscar Goodman. It's a shame; Day wasn't as good or funny as Smith, but the more the merrier. (I would show you a few of Day's panels, but I seriously suspect Righthaven would sue me even though this is clearly commentary, so here's one and another.)

As for Gibes, I do feel badly for anyone who loses their job. I really do. But I also have felt for a very long time that this kind, clueless fellow had no place running the New Media operations of a major daily newspaper or writing about technology. He's that guy in every office who was good with the computer in the early 1990s and who somehow convinced the bosses that he was staying up on things when, in fact, he was letting the R-J fall hopelessly and often hilariously behind. Now they have the chance to bring in someone who can really redesign that horrid website and help the journalists there tell their stories in the more three-dimensional ways that are now available.

I've been torn about what to say about the loss of five "investigative" reporters. A.D. Hopkins was the head of this division and, so far as I could tell, was dead weight to the paper as far back as when I was there in the 1990s. He'd put out a couple of stories a year even then and none of them rocked anybody's world or changed Las Vegas in any perceptible way. Joan Whiteley, who also was let go, was responsible for the building-code exposes at various Harrah's properties and that was pretty solid stuff that was just very, very badly written. (She also broke the Vdara death ray story, btw.) Two others who left were Alan Maimon and Frank Geary, and I don't have any strong views on their tenures.

So while the division that was eliminated was not particularly productive, it's still not good for a newspaper as short-staffed as the R-J to reduce the number of local reporters. They need more. The nation's fifth largest school district, for instance, is covered by one reporter. In most cities this size, the newspapers have teams of education reporters. And that's just one example.

That said, sometimes you have to clear away some brush before you can grow properly. There's a sense of palpable fear among the old guard at the R-J that they could be next, and that's not a bad thing. Complacency is, especially in the current, fast-changing media era. The paper has a new publisher, Bob Brown, and a new editor, Michael Hengel, for the first time in two decades, so there will be blood.

Here's a prediction: Next to go will be Nate Tannenbaum, whose ridiculous daily TV-ish news segments are watched by virtually nobody. The production value is still laughable two years on and you can't embed it on a blog or download it on a smart phone, so the entire effort is just stupid. Nate, like A.D. and Al, is a very sweet guy. That doesn't mean that what he's doing is in any way relevant or worthwhile to the newspaper or its readers.

* * *

P.S. If you think I was wrong about how unceremoniously editor Thomas Mitchell and publisher Sherm Frederick were dumped take a look at how proudly and lovingly the newspaper announced that Geoff Schumacher, parent Stephens Media's director of community publications, is leaving the company to be publisher of a paper in Ames, Iowa. Nuff said. Except: Congrats, Geoff!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pictorial: The Vdara Kwik-E-Mart Is Now Open!

After 15 months of operation, Vdara at CityCenter has finally added something that surely must have been mentioned back in class when MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren was earning his much-vaunted urban planning degree: A sundries shop.

Yes, Murren expected people to live in the hotel-condo Vdara in a so-called "urban" manner without a nearby grocery or even a way to get a stick of gum, making it more likely than not the only 1,500+ unit hotel in the world not to offer even a vending machine from which to purchase basic necessities. This oversight was quite obvious to yours truly and many others, but somehow it made sense to MGM brass to do without.

Or maybe not! It may not have even been an oversight! I'll get back to that in a moment!

Anyhow, today was the first day of operations for the Market Cafe Vdara, which was breathlessly described in a press release today as -- and I'm not making this up -- "a unique experience unlike anything in Las Vegas." This is MGM, as addicted to overpromising as Charlie Sheen is to his own addled voice.

What it is, however, is a reasonably nice and pretty store with just about all that you'd need to fix a meal in your kitchen-equipped Vdara room:

They went with brands like Dean & Deluca and stuff of that caliber, and it's a pretty nice selection. There's also fresh fruit and veggies and I think meats there as well.

Also, there's a counter and some seating where you can eat in, too. They brought over chef Martin Heierling, who presides at Sensi at Bellagio as well as the soon-closing Silk Road a few feet from the Market Cafe Vdara. In fact, he was hanging out there when I went over today.

He told me some interesting stuff, and I'll get back to that in a sec. First, here's some of the wares and prices:

I had a $9.50 Southwest chicken sandwich heated up on the roll that's second from the left above. It was, in fact, quite delicious. But to give an idea of the markups, the Pom Light Wildberry drink I bought from the chiller cost $3.30. I didn't look at what those aspirin cost, but I'm sure it'd give me a headache.

So Heierling is obviously a little morose about Silk Road's closure this Sunday, but he said that MGM brass are looking for another space for him somewhere to open a new restaurant. He also told me Silk Road won't be replaced with another restaurant but instead will be used -- as he says it has been in the past several months since they stopped serving dinner -- for banquets associated with conventions at CityCenter. Okey dokey.

The most interesting reveal from Heierling was that the space for Market Cafe Vdara was actually always there. That is, they always planned to have a sundries shop there but MGM ran out of money as they were completing CityCenter and postponed it. There was always a hollow room in this space, he said. Which makes me wonder: What other essential features did CityCenter put off? Is there maybe a whole other casino at Aria that actually does have natural light? Maybe there really are more pocket parks somewhere?

Meanwhile, as I ate I watched several managers plotting out where to put more merchandise and such, and that's great. But there was one pretty critical oversight: No news rack. People -- and especially Jim Murren's kind of people -- do that, they seek out a Newsweek or a Review-Journal when they head down to the shop in the morning for their coffee or their Dean and Deluca Moroccan spice rub.

But there's also one other odd thing:

The place closes at 8 p.m. After that, you must order proper food from room service. Doesn't that seem a little early to you? Couldn't they somehow design it to keep the sundries shop open later or all night? Haven't they defeated the purpose if I come in from Haze Marquee with a rip-roaring headache and I need some overpriced Excedrin? Isn't it at the most desperate hours that people will pay the most?

Heierling said it's a work in progress and they may adjust the hours. OK, then. I'm just proud of them for caving into logic and opening anything.

It did dawn on me that this could be what Murren meant when he told that hack from the L.A. Times a few months ago that CityCenter is still opening in phases, a total reversal of his lengthy dissertations of 2009 about CityCenter's superior to Wynn and others in opening all at once.

In fact, this could be a momentous occasion. Either this is an indication that Murren still has some magical surprises left in store or the debut of the Vdara Kwik-E-Mart means that today, March 1, 2011, marks the official completion of CityCenter!

Woo-hoo either way.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Real Fakes: The Slideshow


I dragged Amy along to shoot the 11th Annual Celebrity Impersonators Convention at the Golden Nugget earlier this week. I had this brainstorm to see if we could go to the room of one of the attendees to watch her transformation. My piece for AOL News posted on Thursday.

Debbie Cavalier of Ponce Inlet, Fla., has been "Sarah Palin" since Halloween 2008 when her niece suggested she give it a try as a costume. She let us document it, which we did. Here's the Flickr slideshow, including other real-fake shots:

Here's the before and after:

Steve meets Sarah Palin


Finally, though, I wonder if you have any idea who this person impersonates:

Who do you think she impersonates?

Any ideas? (Yes, I do know.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Behind The Scenes: Wynn Sportsbook

It's Oscar Sunday, so I have a piece posted on AOL News today that looks at the very real prospect that the Nevada Gaming Control Board may soon allow actual wagering on the Oscars, the World Series of Poker and several reality TV shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars. A rules change earlier this month has made it possible for sports book directors to present the board with bets they'd like to take.

For that piece, I spent some time last Saturday with Wynn oddsmaker Johnny Avello, who is well known for writing "just for fun" odds on all manner of topics from who will replace Regis Philbin (Neil Patrick Harris is the favorite, Betty White is 200-to-1) to whether Watson would beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy!

He showed me around, and that's always fun. Above are the servers that handle the betting data and this, below, are the satellite boxes that manage all the TV feeds seen in the book:

This is Johnny at his desk with his fake honorary Oscar, which he received last year at the Wynn's Oscar party...

...and this is the command center:

Johnny really got going with the offbeat odds stuff when TV Guide asked him in 2000 to put odds on the first season of Survivor. Now he'll do almost anything the media asks, be it the Grammys for Rolling Stone or the prospects of a celebrity marriage for US Weekly. Last year, Avello came on The Petcast to explain how he sets the odds for the Westminster Dog Show, and you can hear that here.

Last week, he was working on the odds for who might win Celebrity Apprentice. This was his rough first-to-last list:

He'd never really be able to take bets on Celebrity Apprentice or any other reality show that films its season in advance of airing it because then too many people would know the results. DWTS and AI do their results shows live, but it's still tricky to make sure all bets are in before ANYBODY knows the outcome, even the people who tabulate them. The Oscars are a similar problem; he says bets may have to be cut off the day before the ballots are due into the Academy in order to please gaming authorities. That may reduce betting action, since many bettors are more likely to want to bet the day of the event, as they do in other events.

FYI, for however long they remain posted, you can download Avello's picks for Oscar right here. And you can find the pdfs of all Avello's current recreational odds on Wynn's website.

Meanwhile, Avello's office is a fun place. They've got this huge collection of bobbleheads, although none of Oscar Goodman or Norm...

And speaking of political figures, Avello doesn't seem too keen on making odds on election results, which many believe could be a popular amenity. Hilton sportsbook director Jay Kornegay mentioned it as an interesting prospect, but it seems like it's against state and federal law anyway. But Avello gave a different reason for avoiding them:

It’s a touchy subject. That’s not going to be one of htem. I don’t do it because it could offend someone. My boss Steve could be thinking one way or Elaine Wynn could be thinking one way and I could make somebody else the favorite. It could be more heartburn than anything else.

One other fun thing. There's not a lot on Avello's office wall. There's a framed picture of Secretariat, a mounted copy of a Vegas magazine profile of him, a movie poster and...


Avello had picked Donny Osmond to win his season of Dancing With The Stars. After he did, Donny sent him this autographed odds sheet.

I wonder if next year we can get Avello to make odds on the Trippies!