“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” — Richard II
There came a time in today’s hearing in federal court in which attorney Donald Campbell mentioned an interview in which it was said that Las Vegas Sun Editor Brian Greenspun wanted to purchase the newspaper.
“I hope he does, because it will make him happy and give him something that he needs in his life,” Campbell said.
It was a very personal comment in a case otherwise characterized by discussions of the finer points of anti-trust law, the Newspaper Preservation Act, the doctrine of ripeness and concepts of standing. (My colleague Howard Stutz has the full story here.)
But Campbell’s instincts were dead on. This isn’t just a case about whether the joint operating agreement — in which the Sun and Review-Journal‘s business operations are combined, while they maintain separate and competing newsrooms — should be dissolved. It’s a case about personal and family legacies and sibling squabbling about the past and future of media.
I asked Greenspun after the hearing about buying the Sun. He said he’s made repeated offers to buy the Sun, as well as related publications including Vegas Inc. (formerly In Business Las Vegas) and Las Vegas Weekly. But Greenspun said the other owners of the Greenspun Media Group — his brother, Danny Greenspun, and sisters Susan Fine and Janie Greenspun Gale – have declined. (How realistic those offers are is unknown.)
“My issue here is to save the Las Vegas Sun and save the two newspaper market,” Greenspun said. “I have one concern: That’s to keep the Las Vegas Sun alive.”
(Disclosure: I’m a former employee of the Sun, having covered police and City Hall from 1993 to 1997.)
It’s not understating the matter at all to say Brian Greenspun’s siblings don’t share his passionate love of the Sun, or his refusal to allow the Review-Journal to be the last paper standing in Las Vegas’s long-running newspaper war. For the rest of the Greenspuns — especially Danny Greenspun — the future has always been digital, and print has been dead for a long time.
That’s why the other half of this transaction — the transfer of the URL “lasvegas.com” to the Greenspun family and an end to expensive monthly lease payments for that online name — is the fulcrum of the deal. Even if Brian Greenspun were to buy the Sun, Stephens Media would not transfer “lasvegas.com” to the Greenspun family. Since Danny Greenspun and his sisters want the URL more than they want a printed printed Las Vegas Sun, they’re willing to dissolve the JOA to get the domain name.
(It must also be said that the Greenspun family heavily subsidizes the Sun operation, although they do get an annual profits payment from Stephens that was reported to be about $1.3 million, much less than they received before the recession hit.)
Obviously, Brian Greenspun is not willing to let at least the printed Sun die in exchange for “lasvegas.com.” And thus, a family relationship that had come under strain during the financial setbacks of the recession has now blown up into the public realm. (Danny Greenspun attended Friday’s hearing, but the brothers were not observed to acknowledge each other during the proceeding. Brian Greenspun did not name his siblings in his lawsuit, although it appears they are essential parties to the action.)
With the majority of Greenspun Media Group shareholders in apparent agreement to dissolve the JOA in exchange for the rights to “lasvegas.com,” and with a sale to Brian Greenspun an apparent non-starter, things don’t look good for the printed version of the Sun. But the final chapter of the story has yet to be written (today’s ruling only held the case wasn’t ready to be argued; the merits of Brian Greenspun’s anti-trust and Newspaper Preservation Act allegations have yet to be heard).
But no matter what else, this case is a tragic story about a family riven by disagreements about its legacy and its future, inexorably tied to the past, present and future of the newspaper industry. And it’s a very personal tale indeed.