Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss
Last week, the nation's largest newspaper chain took ownership of the Arizona Republic. The first day was quiet, the only news the appointment of Susan Clark-Johnson as CEO and president of Phoenix Newspapers Inc.
The petite, salt-and-pepper pageboyed fiftysomething is considered a star within the Gannett chain, and the lead role at the Republic -- the second largest of Gannett's 99 papers, behind only USA Today -- is certainly a plum.
The paper she leaves, the Reno Gazette-Journal, increased profits and racked up "Best of Gannett" reporting awards while Clark-Johnson was publisher.
But that's not what's gained her attention in national journalism circles, or among Reno's community activists.
In 1994, Clark-Johnson accepted a paid position on the board of directors of the company that owns Harrah's Casinos -- one of the biggest players in Nevada's biggest industry.
At the time, the Washington Post clucked and the Columbia Journalism Review gave Clark-Johnson a "dart," quoting the Reno Gazette's own employee manual: "Employees will not have any outside interest, investment, or business relationship that dilutes their loyalty to the company or dedication to the principle of a free and impartial press."
Ever since, a lot of folks in Reno haven't trusted the Reno Gazette to fairly cover gaming issues or matters of significance to Reno's downtown, where Harrah's has a casino and additional property holdings. The Reno News & Review, the city's five-year-old alternative weekly, has cut its teeth on Clark-Johnson's hide -- sending reporters to stalk her all over town, Roger & Me style, trying unsuccessfully to ask her about the conflict -- and reporting every possible sign of bias in the daily.
There are Web sites largely devoted to Clark-Johnson and the Reno Gazette, including www.rgjsucks.com and members.aol.com/nvaltnet. Last March, 35 picketers gathered outside the newspaper's offices to call for Clark-Johnson's resignation from Harrah's board.
As Clark-Johnson was touring the Republic newsroom last Wednesday afternoon, phone and Internet lines in Reno were buzzing with news of her departure.
In an e-mail to other activists, Mike Robinson, an insurance broker and city council candidate in Reno, wrote: ". . . Those of us who have written and spoken out about Sue Clark-Johnson's conflict of interest in trying to serve two corporate masters may take some satisfaction that as readers we had some influence, however small, and that now the local daily newspaper coverage could change for the better."
Clark-Johnson needn't worry, now that she's here. Protests are rare in Phoenix and rarer still against the Republic, which has a long tradition of business boosterism.
In fact, Clark-Johnson will likely find a newspaper that pleases her on many levels. Gannett may have a reputation as the "bogeyman of corporate journalism," as Columbia University journalism professor Sig Gissler puts it, but the Arizona Republic has been cozying up with the bogeyman for years. Since 1989, when its parent company went public, the Republic has emulated Gannett's money-making, reader-friendly style. Under the tutelage of former Gannett groupie Chip Weil, the Republic increased profits, decreased staff (including closing its fading afternoon paper, the Phoenix Gazette), surveyed readers and redesigned the paper until, when it changed hands last week, it read an awful lot like a Gannett paper already. With a healthy 32 percent profit margin, its books looked like those of a Gannett paper, too.
Clark-Johnson didn't return New Times' call seeking comment on her past in Reno and future in Phoenix. So questions remain: Will the Republic continue its philanthropic role in Phoenix? Last year, the Republic donated $9 million to charity; Gannett spent $8.3 million, spread among its vast holdings. What is the future of the beloved Lazy R&G Ranch, the paper's employee park? And will the Republic continue its co-ownership of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team? Gannett's not talking.
Critics are fond of saying that Gannett buys bad small papers and makes them good, and buys good big papers and makes them bad. So what happens when it buys a mediocre paper?
Gannett officials have called the Republic a "crown jewel," but the truth is that the only Pulitzer Prize the paper's ever won went to its cartoonist, Steve Benson.
Like Susan Clark-Johnson, the Republic has made national headlines less for good journalism than for dubious practices. In 1985, publisher Duke Tully resigned, admitting he had wholly fabricated his record as a decorated Air Force fighter pilot; turned out he had never served in the armed forces at all.
Throughout the '90s, political coverage by the Republic has come into question. The paper endorsed Governor Fife Symington in his 1994 reelection bid even after it was revealed he was under investigation for bank fraud. After Symington's victory, managing editor Steve Knickmeyer instructed reporters to lighten up on the governor.
Knickmeyer, who has since left the Republic, made news in national journalism circles -- and, eventually, an ongoing lawsuit -- when the Columbia Journalism Review quoted him as calling laid-off Republic and Gazette reporters "fat, lazy, incompetent and slow."
And journalists are still scratching their heads over a bizarre story about then-presidential contender John McCain, Arizona's senior senator, that ran in the Republic earlier this year. Just last month, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. editorialized in the Wall Street Journal that the Republic made a "prize fool of itself with a long-winded story . . . that highlighted a weird and baseless rumor by a murder victim that John McCain had carried on an affair with actress Connie Stevens."
Jenkins mentioned the McCain story as an aside in a piece criticizing the Republic for smacking supervisors and reporters who bought Central Newspapers stock after hearing rumors of an impending sale, while company directors and executives made millions from the sale.
Susan Clark-Johnson and Gannett have their work cut out for them in Phoenix. With an election looming, practically the entire political reporting team at the Republic has quit in recent months -- editor Dave Wagner, reporters Kris Mayes and Chris Moeser and columnist Michael Murphy.
Remaining staffers are left to wonder whether layoffs and budget cuts are coming, given the experiences at other Gannett papers. And if history's a lesson, Gannett officials should worry about Republic employees quitting.
Sara Kuhl, a nine-year Gannett veteran, left her post last year as state editor of the Idaho Statesman and took a job as editor of the Boise Weekly, the area's alternative paper. Gannett's not all bad, Kuhl says; she praises their training programs. But ultimately, it wasn't the place for her.
"Are they a bottom-line-driven company? Definitely. Does that hurt newsrooms? Definitely. Do they expect way too much out of their people? Definitely," she says.
And the readers felt the effects, Kuhl insists. "When I worked at the Statesman, I didn't tell people where I worked, because I didn't want to hear it."
The Arizona Republic opened in May 1890 as the Arizona Republican. To this day, a lot of people think that's a better name for a newspaper that's always had a reputation as one of the nation's most conservative.
But those who knew Eugene C. Pulliam -- the man who bought the Phoenix Newspapers chain in 1946 for $4 million and ran the papers, along with the Indianapolis Star, until his death in 1975 -- considered him more of an iconoclast than a Republican.
"Pulliam made Attila the Hun look like a liberal," recalls Roy Elson, a longtime aide to the late Senator Carl Hayden, a Democrat. So Elson was understandably wary when he approached the publisher in 1961 for the first time, to ask him to support his boss in his final reelection bid. Hayden was in his 80s and in failing health, and Elson knew that, without Pulliam's blessing, Hayden was in trouble.
But Pulliam offered his wholehearted support, and Elson got to see firsthand just how powerful -- and how shameless -- the newspaper mogul was in the promotion of something he thought was right.
Pulliam printed every press release Hayden sent, Elson recalls. The paper wrote "article after article about the man and his background and what he had done for the state and the water, highways, Indian affairs and parks . . . . The coverage was just unbelievable."
"Overnight, where our surveys had indicated that maybe only 60 percent of the people in Arizona knew who Carl Hayden was -- and even then they weren't sure he was still alive -- we went to 100 percent name recognition."
Hayden was challenged by a young Republican, a used-car salesman named Evan Mecham. Even with Pulliam's help, Hayden began to slip in the polls in the final days of the race, when he fell ill and was too sick to leave Washington.
Pulliam called Elson and read him unpublished results of Arizona Republic polls.
"He said, 'Things aren't going so good out here. What are you going to do about it?'"
Hayden won, and despite their political differences, Elson and Pulliam remained close for years.
"He used to cheat a little at golf, but that's all right," Elson remembers, laughing. "I gained a great deal of respect for him because he was the old-fashioned journalist . . . . He liked power, and he knew how to exercise it."
But while he entrenched himself in the community, using the paper as his personal mouthpiece and helping to found the infamous "Phoenix 40," the secretive group of powerful local businessmen who anointed candidates and political causes, Pulliam was apparently conscious of potential conflicts of interest; that's why he sold off the broadcasting arm of the Republic when he bought it, Elson says.
"Old Man Pulliam," as he came to be known, didn't serve on any boards, recalls Pat Murphy, who went to work at the Republic in 1972, eventually becoming publisher. And Pulliam didn't want to be beholden to anyone financially, Murphy says. "He didn't owe a nickel to anybody for anything that he owned."
Murphy wasn't always fond of Pulliam's style and didn't approve of his front-page editorials, but he says the oligarchy was well-intentioned. Pulliam saw to it that the Phoenix Civic Plaza was built, that charter government took effect in Phoenix and that Bruce Babbitt was appointed attorney general in 1975. He decided it was time for a Hispanic Democrat to be governor, Murphy says, so he helped get Raúl Castro elected.
One of the best-known stories about Pulliam's influence has more to do with his wife, Nina, than with Gene. In the early 1970s, she got a look at a design for a freeway that rose above central Phoenix.
"Mrs. Pulliam saw those things and she said, 'My God a'mighty, this is just going to create a Chinese wall right through the center of the city,'" Murphy recalls.
"The old man came to me and said, 'We've got to oppose this freeway until they design it below grade.'"
The paper was successful, and freeway construction in Phoenix was delayed for years. But today the interstate passes underneath downtown.
Through the '70s and '80s, even after the senior Pulliam's death, the Republic remained a family newspaper.
Rich Robertson began with the Republic in the '70s as a freelance reporter, and became city editor in 1985. At that time, the paper's owners were happy to operate with just a 6 percent to 7 percent profit, he recalls. They plowed money back into the editorial product -- their own choice, because the company was private and not beholden to stockholders.
"The newsroom could make a budget request and get damn near anything it wanted," Robertson says. "We were spending money like drunk sailors, it seemed like."
And it seemed like no one ever left. "When you went to work for the Republic you stayed there. And we had people who were 80 years old who were cranking down really big money, whose job was just to log the cartoons that came in."
The paper opened bureaus and devoted money to investigative reporting and splashy stories. "We were really full of ourselves, which is kind of part of being part of the Republic," Robertson says.
Murphy and Robertson fondly remember the grand style in which they covered the 1987 Flight 255 Northwest Airlines crash in Detroit, in which a number of Arizonans were killed. And the investigations they took on; the paper published an 80,000-word series on corruption and fraud in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Then came the decision in 1989 to go public.
The company traded Central Newspapers shares on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol ECP, the senior Pulliam's initials. It was a whimsical touch, and soon it was just about all that was left of the mark "Old Man Pulliam" had made on his papers.
Almost immediately, Robertson says, the financial advisers ordered profits increased to 14 percent. Budgets were cut, layoffs were made and the paper hasn't been the same since, the nostalgics claim.
"I think the Republic in recent years -- and I try to avoid saying 'since I left' -- I think in recent years the Republic has lost a lot of its bite," says Murphy, who now lives in Ketchum, Idaho, where he still writes. "The editorial page, for example, hasn't had a hell of a lot of bite. The investigative projects come few and far between. And I think there's a trend in daily newspapers all over the country, and I think it gets right back to public ownership. The people who are presiding over these newspapers for the most part are financiers, marketing experts, lawyers, accountants and not journalists of heart, and their mandate is to make money, and the shareholders have got pressure on them to do that."
Whatever the reason, the Arizona Republic -- and newspapers in general -- are less influential today than they used to be, Robertson says.
"It used to be that people would pick up the newspaper's editorial endorsements and you'd see them carry them to the election polls, for instance. And now editorial endorsement of candidates is practically a kiss of death. It's almost like people take the newspaper to the polls so they know who not to vote for," he says.
Robertson recalls that 20 years ago, the Republic's penetration rate -- the percentage of households buying the newspaper -- was about 80 percent. Today, as with many other metro dailies, it's dropped to 50 to 60 percent. The city's still growing, but the Republic's circulation has stayed flat for five years or so. (Robertson wants it made clear that he doesn't take credit for any of the paper's past successes.)
The '90s have been all about preparing the paper for sale, as far as Murphy's concerned. In 1991, former Gannett publisher Chip Weil was brought in -- first as CEO of Phoenix, later expanding to Central Newspapers -- to trim costs and update the paper. Under him, the Phoenix Gazette was closed and a fancy new building for the Republic was constructed. Profits soared.
In 1998, Julia Wallace joined the Republic as managing editor. Fresh from stints at Gannett papers -- she'd most recently edited the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon -- Wallace brought Gannett people with her. Stories and layout took on an increasingly "Gannettized" feeling, culminating with the paper's "millennial" redesign.
Nina Pulliam died in 1997. Her son, Eugene S., passed away last year, clearing the way for shareholders to sell, which they did, on June 28, for $2.8 billion.
Republic Chief Executive and Publisher John F. Oppedahl and Executive Editor Pam Johnson have repeatedly said they plan to stay with the paper, although last week Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell said Oppedahl is reviewing his situation and trying to decide what to do. Rumors are swirling about Wallace's future with the paper.
The sale to Gannett is "the next stage" for a paper that had already lost touch with the community, Robertson says.
"Even though [Central Newspapers is a] big corporation now, publicly traded and everything, the decision-making on budgets is still made within a very small organization, and essentially, made very locally."
But under Gannett, Robertson adds, "All the budget decisions are going to be made by people in Arlington (Virginia) by people whose vision of Arizona is probably Navajo sheep herders. And it's going to be a whole different culture change again."
Robertson should know. He left the Republic in the early '90s to work for Gannett, at the company's local television station, KPNX (Channel 12). He quit that job last year to do private investigations and news consulting, frustrated by what he saw as a lack of financial support for in-depth news coverage.
Tucson writer Charles Bowden is another Gannett alum. The author of several books and a contributor to Esquire and Harper's wrote for the Tucson Citizen for three years in the early 1980s.
"I was told by old hands when I joined there . . . that they used to have 120 newsside when they were bought in '77. Well, now I live in a metro area of 900,000, and they've probably got 50 newssiders, or 60. It's a joke. That's what Gannett does," he says. (According to the Citizen's Web site, the number's around 75.)
Bowden admits he thought it was a great day for journalism when Old Man Pulliam died.
"But I was wrong. In fact, these local assholes with sacred cows and bigotry put out for their communities better papers than the chains do. The chains are more to the norms of journalism schools, but they don't speak to the community or cover it to the same degree. Period."
And what of Gannett's arrival in Phoenix?
"For this state, it almost extinguishes hope. I mean, we live in a state where I wish I could bring Pulliam back from the dead," Bowden says. "The son of a bitch at least was a local patriot."
Frank Gannett and his friends began buying newspapers in New York state almost 100 years ago. They quickly expanded throughout the Northeast and, by the 1960s, the company had branched into a national chain. Today Gannett owns media outlets all over the world, but is best known for USA Today, the colorful, user-friendly paper whose short stories and catchy graphics were mocked for years, then widely adopted in the journalism community.
Gannett has also set the standard for profit-making in journalism. Observers say that focus will only sharpen with the appointment of Douglas McCorkindale as the company's CEO, who has said he intends to cut expenses.
Some say Gannett gets a bad rap.
Amy Vernon joined Gannett's Journal News in Westchester County, New York, last year. She's assistant metro editor in charge of education coverage; most recently, Vernon was an editor at the Tribune in Mesa, which Thomson Newspapers recently sold to Freedom Communications.
She keeps in touch with friends from Mesa and recalls, "Everybody at the Tribune was like, 'Oh, thank goodness, we escaped the Gannett bullet,' and they were like, 'Ha ha, the Republic is now Gannett.'"
But Vernon thinks that's silly.
"To be perfectly honest, it is like any other newspaper company today," Vernon says of Gannett. "Maybe at some point there was a difference, but you work for any newspaper company now, you're working for Wall Street."
What will the sale mean?
Gannett has a corporate philosophy -- promote diversity, cut costs, make the news reader-friendly -- that is present in all of its properties, but in many ways, each of its 99 newspapers is unique. That makes predictions difficult.
"I think the way they've handled papers in different markets has been different in each case," says Geneva Overholser, a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. She was editor of the Des Moines Register when Gannett bought the family-owned paper in the mid-1980s.
"Gannett has taken some crummy little newspapers and made them better," Overholser says. "My experience, however, is that when they bought a really outstanding newspaper, the Des Moines Register, the inevitable budget pressures produced a weaker newspaper. That's my opinion and my experience."
Irene Nolan, who worked at Kentucky's Louisville Courier-Journal before and after that much-heralded family paper was sold to Gannett, also in the mid-'80s, left in 1991 for North Carolina, where she now edits a monthly publication.
At first, there was little change, she says. But in the end, "I did not care for that Gannett corporate atmosphere. It was extremely hard to take. We didn't like them, and they didn't like us."
In the search for what changes can be expected, there's a tendency to look at what happened at papers such as the Register and Courier-Journal. True, like the Republic, the papers are all larger than Gannett's typical acquisitions, and family-owned. But observers say the Republic is simply not of the same caliber as the others; it's so Gannettized, it likely won't experience the culture shock the others did.
For example, the Register had always been renowned for its statewide coverage -- a corn kernel couldn't fall in Iowa without the Des Moines Register knowing about it. But under Gannett, many counties have been eliminated from coverage entirely; they weren't cost-effective. On the flip side, the Republic started closing down its out-of-town bureaus years ago.
Gissler, the Columbia University professor, cautions against blaming Gannett for a particular newspaper's faults. Even now, on some days the Register and Courier-Journal put out "terrific papers," he says.
But there are some universal concerns about the company.
Overholser and other critics say Gannett did not dictate editorial policy, but it did cut budgets and institute programs such as the now-defunct News 2000 -- a set of guidelines that dictated everything from story length (short) to reader surveys (lots) -- that newspapers were rewarded for following. News 2000 may have pushed the right ideas, such as diversity in voices represented in the paper and in newsrooms, but it had the ultimate effect of homogenizing newspapers by forcing them into formulas.
Gissler has mixed feelings about News 2000.
"They're objectives that basically no one can disagree with -- to know your community and be connected to what's going on in your community. All of that, I think, is laudable in principle. The problems come in implementing it and to what extent it gets carried to goofy extremes. . . . But the basic objective of trying to put out a paper that reflects more than middle-aged white men -- I can't quarrel with that," he says, laughing. (Gissler's a middle-aged white man.)
"I think one thing almost everybody, including their critics, can agree on is that they do have this commitment to a more diverse staff and a more diverse feel to the paper in terms of images, pictures and sources . . . . That might be one of the most important or the most visible changes" at the Arizona Republic, Gissler says.
Nolan hated News 2000. (Gannett is said to be revamping the program; spokeswoman Connell had no comment.)
Nolan was particularly bothered by the fact that editors from other Gannett papers were sent in to review the Courier-Journal. "I just don't think a bunch of editors who don't live in your town and don't know the history and the heritage and the culture of your town, your city, your state, your newspaper ought to be judging your paper in any way," she says.
Sara Kuhl, the former Idaho Statesman editor now at the Boise Weekly, says that in lily-white Boise, it was tough to find minorities to quote. But her reporters had to, and editors had to keep a count.
"What happens at Gannett papers is that they start calling that same source just to have that black voice in the paper. And that, I think, defeats the purpose of what they really want," Kuhl says. "It becomes a numbers game, and for top editors it becomes an issue of, 'I have to look good for the corporate people and so we're going to do this in any way we can.'"
That sort of "ends justify the means" philosophy extends to budget matters, critics charge.
"They often set budgets for the newsrooms which are considerably less than previous budgets, and then they don't tell editors, 'Don't do good journalism or don't hire great reporters or don't do investigations'; they just say, 'You have to do it within these financial limits,'" says Richard McCord, a Santa Fe-based journalist who wrote The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire.
"The editor who doesn't meet the projections doesn't last too long, and therefore it's just a simple law of economics that the quality of journalism goes down."
In any case, no editor is likely to be at the same paper too long. That's another frequent criticism of Gannett, that it moves folks in and out before they get to know a community.
Gissler says, "There's something to be said for new blood and a fresh eye, but newspapers are so organic, you really need a memory and some sense of history about the community, and so if most of the people running the paper are from elsewhere and haven't been in town too long, I think you do lose some of that sense of place and personality."
And what about Gannett's mediocre record when it comes to awards? USA Today may be better than it once was, but it has never won a Pulitzer -- and such awards are scarce at Gannett's other papers, too.
Doing good investigative journalism is on Gannett's "hit list" of objectives, Gissler says.
But a recent catastrophe at another Gannett paper, involving another sacred cow, has journalism watchers wondering about the future of the chain's appetite for investigative journalism.
In June 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an exhaustive, 18-page report on questionable labor practices of Chiquita, the Cincinnati-based banana company run by Carl Lindner, one of the city's most powerful businessmen. Two of the paper's star reporters had worked on the story for a year, traveling to Central America and reportedly spending way more than Gannett normally allows for such endeavors. This was clearly intended as a Pulitzer entry, but it was not to be. Shortly after the stories were published, they were retracted -- at the behest of Carl Lindner and Chiquita.
One of the reporters, Michael Gallagher, later admitted in court that he had used illegal means to obtain voice mails from Chiquita's headquarters. Gallagher eventually ratted out his source at Chiquita to avoid jail time and has left journalism. His editor, Larry Beaupre, was reassigned to Gannett's corporate headquarters and later left the company in a dispute over the way he was treated. He's now suing. Gannett paid Chiquita more than $10 million and the companies signed a confidentiality agreement.
Gannett had no comment.
John Fox, editor of CityBeat, the alternative weekly in Cincinnati, has many comments. He's been writing about the issue for years now. Fox says Gannett caved to Lindner.
"The biggest problem I have," he says, "is that they retracted the whole thing -- every follow-up story that was ever done, the entire series -- the whole thing was all retracted when well more than half of the work had nothing to do with the voice mails. . . . They went at it for the right reasons, but then they just completely caved."
And as for the future of investigative journalism in his town? There's been almost none, Fox says, since the Chiquita fiasco.
"I really think, personally, it'll be a long time before we see the Cincinnati Enquirer take on another sacred cow in Cincinnati."
Another disturbing incident at a Gannett paper took place last year at the Idaho Statesman, when Jim Bartimo, a respected journalist whose publication credits include the Wall Street Journal, resigned his position as business editor after just a month because the paper allowed Micron Technology, the largest local employer in the state, to preview a story. Bartimo, who has left journalism, had no comment.
Statesman Executive Editor Carolyn Washburn told the Boise Weekly that she thinks it's appropriate to allow subjects like Micron to read stories and offer suggestions before they appear in the paper. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who got two column items out of the debacle, wrote that it's "extremely rare" for editors to condone such a practice.
Whatever Gannett does in Phoenix, the experts agree, it won't do it quickly.
"I think you'll see that push toward increased profits over time. Gannett isn't stupid. They won't do it immediately. But see in several months. I think you'll see, over time, increased subscription rates and increased ad rates," says Ben Bagdikian, author of Media Monopoly and former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
John Morton, an industry analyst and columnist with the American Journalism Review, says, "They aren't going to come in and do anything egregious to the newspaper. One of the things that they're buying is the goodwill and the standing of the Phoenix paper in the market, and they'll be careful not to do anything to undermine any of that. So I don't think you'll really see any significant changes."
Gissler agrees that big changes aren't likely -- yet.
"We live in an unusual time because the economy is so good and the great test comes when revenues go down," he says. "Then how strong will the commitment be to continuing staff and the news hole and all that?"
Some folks up in Reno say Gannett has already done something egregious to the Arizona Republic by naming Clark-Johnson as CEO of Phoenix Newspapers.
Along with her duties as publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal, in 1994 Clark-Johnson was named senior group president for Gannett's Pacific Newspaper Group, placing her in the upper echelon of the company's national management structure. That same year, she joined the board of Promus Cos. Inc., then the parent company of Harrah's Casinos. She's continued on Harrah's board (now known as Harrah's Entertainment Inc.) ever since.
It's not unusual for newspaper publishers to get involved in the communities their papers cover. But observers say there's a distinction here, because gaming is the biggest industry in Nevada, and Harrah's is one of the biggest gaming companies in the state (not to mention one of the Reno Gazette-Journal's largest advertisers). And Clark-Johnson has been paid handsomely for her input. Securities and Exchange Commission filings this March put her Harrah's salary at $3,167 per month, plus $1,600 for each board meeting, $1,300 for each committee meeting she attends and any stock options she may have exercised.
In a June column, Jimmy Boegle -- a fifth-generation Nevadan and editor of the Reno News & Review, the alternative weekly that's frequently critical of Clark-Johnson -- wrote of the Reno Gazette: "Its coverage of the gaming industry and the community economy as a whole will continue to be suspect because the newspaper's head has a charge, as a member of the Harrah's board, to act in the best interests of a major player in a major industry -- whose best interests at times are in conflict with the best interests of the community."
Harrah's can't help but be the news of the day -- or most days, at least -- in Reno. The company has a large casino in downtown Reno, a city that is facing typical urban growing pains along with the challenges brought by increased competition from Indian gaming. Native American casinos are opening across the Nevada border in California, just a short distance from Reno.
In addition, a debate has raged for years over whether to bury cut-through railroad traffic in a $213 million trench that would run through downtown Reno. Harrah's supports the trench -- the railroad runs right by its Reno casino, and the company has recently purchased land nearby. It could see tremendous financial gain from the project.
The Reno Gazette has supported the trench project, as well, but many local activists have not, and they point to the paper's position as proof of Clark-Johnson's influence.
The trench project -- which is now undergoing environmental impact studies -- will be funded in part by a sales tax increase passed in 1999 by the Washoe County commission, without a vote of the people. Jim Galloway, the lone commissioner who opposed the tax increase and estimates the project could cost as much as $400 million, says the Reno Gazette has targeted him ever since, criticizing him on unrelated matters -- for example, writing "one of the most vicious editorials I've ever seen in my life" after an insignificant vote he made on a special-use permit application.
Recently, Galloway says, there was a case in a rural part of his county where a newspaper owner bought a brothel. Galloway has more respect for that guy than for Clark-Johnson; he says the brothel owner signed an agreement creating a firewall so the business of the brothel and the business of the newspaper would be kept entirely separate.
Not so with the Reno Gazette, he insists. Galloway points to examples of so-called censorship reported by the Reno News & Review. For example, a Reno economist named Gary Horton who produced a report predicting cost overruns for the trench project could not get coverage in the Reno Gazette; when he wrote a letter complaining and criticizing Clark-Johnson, he was reportedly told that a condensed version would be printed, but ultimately the paper refused.
Galloway's interpretation of the Reno Gazette's position: "You accuse us of censorship, so we're censoring your letter!"
When Reno News & Review writer D. Brian Burghart set out in 1997 to ask Clark-Johnson if she perceived her directorship with Harrah's to be getting in the way of publishing a newspaper, he spoke to Rollan Melton, a Pulitzer Prize winner and longtime Reno Gazette-Journal columnist who at one time had served on Gannett's board of directors.
"I've never seen one conflict of interest" regarding Clark-Johnson and Harrah's, Melton told Burghart.
But last year, Melton made the pages of the Reno News & Review again. This time, the story was about how the Reno Gazette had spiked one of Melton's columns -- the first in his 21 years as a columnist. The topic? Harrah's.
According to the Reno News & Review, which obtained a copy of the piece, the column addressed two topics: the demolition of the historic Mapes Hotel in downtown Reno and poor treatment of a club Melton belongs to, the Reno Prospectors, which meets at Harrah's.
"They're treating us like mongrels," the column reportedly said about Harrah's.
Both topics are close to Clark-Johnson's heart. The Harrah's connection is obvious, and in addition, as publisher of the Reno Gazette, she took an active interest in downtown redevelopment interests, even creating a task force called "One Region. One Vision" that has drawn criticism from many local activists.
Did Clark-Johnson kill Melton's column? Melton refused to comment, and Reno Gazette editors didn't return Burghart's calls. Executive editor Tonia Cunning didn't return New Times' call, either. It doesn't matter, says Jake Highton, an ethics professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada's Reno campus and a longtime observer of Clark-Johnson. Perception does.
"You cannot be in a compromising position. As Pulitzer said years ago, a newspaper should have no friends."
Highton is no fan of the Reno Gazette. He calls it a third-rate newspaper that buries good stories, if it reports them at all, and coddles local institutions -- not just the casinos, but the university and other public entities, too.
"They just don't want to rock the boat," Highton says, but "the fact is, they all need to be criticized. . . . By God, government's the enemy, casinos are the enemy."
Instead, he says, "There's just not enough criticism and you're just not going to get it because editors lean the way publishers lean -- that's simply a fact."
Last week, Clark-Johnson told the Republic that she resigned from her position at Harrah's because she was moving to Phoenix. "I had a hard time really understanding what the issue was because newspaper publishers traditionally have been involved in many activities and organizations outside of the newspaper," she told her new paper.
Whatever her reason, Reno city council candidate Mike Robinson and the other Clark-Johnson watchers see the publisher's departure from Harrah's as a small victory.
"Maybe it does have to do with our discontent here," Robinson says.
After all, Harrah's does own a property in the Phoenix area, too.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.