Review-Journal editor steps down in wake of Adelson family purchase

How Vegas journalists revealed their newspaper's owner
How Vegas journalists revealed their newspaper's owner

Mike Hengel, the top editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is stepping aside, less than two weeks after the family of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson took control of the newspaper.

One reporter said the newsroom was "stunned" by the announcement, which Hengel made on Tuesday evening in the midst of a turbulent period for Nevada's biggest newspaper.

Wednesday's edition will include a message from the Adelson family on the front page. It says "we pledge to publish a newspaper that is fair, unbiased and accurate." It describes plans for "new investments" and the establishment of an ombudsman.

Retaining the trust of readers will be difficult for the paper, especially if other veteran journalists follow Hengel to the exit.

A round of end-of-the-year buyouts were initiated before Adelson purchased the paper on December 10. Hengel was originally not eligible. But the eligibility rules were apparently changed for him.

According to tweets and people who were present for the announcement, Hengel told his staffers that he did not ask for a buyout, but that he was offered one shortly after the change in ownership. He did not say who made the offer. But he said he thought his relationship with the Adelson family would be "adversarial" and that it was best to let them pick their own editor.

"I think my resignation probably comes as a relief to the new owners, and it is in my best interest and those of my family," Hengel said, according to reporter Neal Morton.

Hengel did not respond to a request for further comment.

The owners' letter in Wednesday's paper said managers "will appoint an interim editor and will immediately begin a search for the next permanent Review-Journal editor."

Uneasy time for state's biggest newspaper

Hengel's departure comes at a time of widespread unease about what the new owners intend to do.

Longtime Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith, who was once sued by Adelson, wrote over the weekend that "Adelson is precisely the wrong person to own this or any newspaper."

In Las Vegas many of the biggest stories involve casinos, and Adelson owns the Venetian casino. "Readers will be inclined to filter every story through the knowledge that it's being printed in an Adelson newspaper," Smith wrote.

The purchase was initially a secret. But last week, with Hengel's backing, a trio of Review-Journal reporters broke the news that Adelson's family was behind the $140 million purchase. The Adelson family then confirmed the purchase and said they never intended to keep it a secret.

But some staffers aren't buying that. In interviews conducted before Hengel stepped down, some Review-Journal staffers told CNNMoney that they're worried their jobs are on the line now that a new owner is in charge.

"I think we're still all nervous," Howard Stutz said.

"We sure are," Jennifer Robison said.

Robison, Stutz and James DeHaven co-bylined the story that revealed Adelson's ownership.

DeHaven is about to start a new job at a chain of Montana newspapers -- his last day at the Review-Journal is Christmas Eve -- so he said he was "well-positioned to write about this without fear of retribution."

He's worried about his colleagues, however. There are "plenty of well-founded concerns about whether the Adelsons will be kept at arms length from the newsroom," DeHaven said.

On several occasions since the sale, management has removed or changed passages from stories relating to the sale, according to reporters at the paper and outside news accounts.

The Adelson family acquired the paper through a newly-formed company called News + Media Capital. The company's manager, Michael Schroeder, who also runs a chain of small papers in Connecticut, declined to comment on the interventions.

The first instance, on December 10, the day of the sale, involved the removal of something Schroeder said in a staff meeting.

According to Robison, Schroeder said the new owners "just want you to focus on their jobs" and told them, "don't worry about who they are."

"They literally stopped the presses" to remove the quote, she said, calling it "frustrating."

Hengel objected to the interference.

The reporters suspected right away that Adelson was involved in the purchase of the paper, and by the next day they began to accumulate evidence. Robison credited "good old-fashioned beat reporting -- working sources, massaging sources, coaxing sources."

Within a few days, a story linking the Adelson family to the sale was ready to go. Again, Hengel was supportive. But "it was delayed because we had to go through this crazy approval process" with management, Stutz said.

A missing piece about an 'unusual assignment'

When their story was published, Stutz, DeHaven and Robison were heralded by journalists across the country for solving the mystery.

But there was a piece missing from the story: Management had removed a portion about an "unusual assignment" that predated the sale.

While the sale was secretly in the works, several Review-Journal reporters were told to spend two weeks monitoring three local judges.

A separate story about the assignment was published on Friday. The takeaway was that the reporters were unknowingly keeping tabs on a judge that has been unfriendly to Adelson and his business interests in the past.

All three reporters agreed that the recent interference has been uncomfortable. But as DeHaven put it, "there's not a lot we can do about it."

"As our editors said, 'We don't own the press,'" he added.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Schroeder said the multiple Review-Journal stories about the sale demonstrated that "there's been a lot of freedom" to cover the ongoing story.

He also noted that the newspaper recently ran a front-page editorial promising transparency.

"You can be assured that if the Adelsons attempt to skew coverage, by ordering some stories covered and others killed or watered down, the Review-Journal's editors and reporters will fight it," the editorial said. "How can you be sure? One way is to look at how we covered the secrecy surrounding the newspaper's sale. We dug in. We refused to stand down. We will fight for your trust. Every. Single. Day. Even if our former owners and current operators don't want us to."

When asked about discomfort in the newsroom, and the fears that some staffers have, Schroeder said "I can guarantee you they are not fearful for their jobs."

Robison said on Sunday's "Reliable Sources" that "I'm fearful." Others have privately expressed the same concern.

When told of that quote, Schroeder said, "They should not be fearful for their jobs."

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