Published Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 | 12:53 p.m.
Updated Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 | 9:53 p.m.
In a shake-up at the highest ranks of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the newspaper announced Friday that Publisher Sherman Frederick has left the post and will become a consultant and columnist, and Editor Thomas Mitchell was reassigned from newsroom boss to senior opinion editor. General Manager Allan Fleming was let go.
The change in publishers shifts the control of the newspaper from a journalist to a businessman.
Frederick also was replaced as CEO of Stephens Media Group, owner of the R-J, by Michael Ferguson, the company’s chief operating officer. Ferguson in turn named Bob Brown, the newspaper’s advertising director since 2001, as the new publisher, according to the newspaper.
The changes came as a surprise to most R-J employees. Senior editors were informed of the changes an hour before the news was published on the R-J’s website.
The moves bring an abrupt end to the Frederick-Mitchell era. Their 18-year tenure as publisher and editor spanned an eventful period in the city’s history, including rapid growth, salacious public corruption, newfound political prominence and crushing recession. The newspaper, whose circulation grew with the city’s population although never quite as quickly, covered these events with a relatively short-staffed newsroom, and an editorial page that is one of the most conservative in the country.
(The Sun is distributed inside the R-J but has a separate newsroom and management.)
Ferguson said decisions about the future of the R-J will be left to Brown and his local management team.
An announcement on a new editor will be made in the coming weeks, he said.
Speculation was rampant inside Stephens Media and in valley media circles that the moves, which were paired with several others on the business side of the operation, came in part as the result of the recent election results.
Both Frederick and Mitchell made no secret of their journalistic focus on ousting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from office, a fact noted in the national media for months.
An individual familiar with the situation said senior editors were summoned to a meeting with Brown and corporate attorney Mark Hinueber at 11 a.m. Friday. Brown and Hinueber told the group of the changes and said they anticipated a lot of speculation, including some who would say it was related to the newspaper’s vocal stance on the Reid-Sharron Angle race.
Politics had nothing to do with the decision, they told the group. Rather, the company wanted to go in a different direction.
Ferguson echoed that, saying the personnel moves have nothing to do with the election coverage.
Still, sources inside Stephens said they suspect executives at the company, which is owned by an Arkansas investment bank with interests before Congress, felt chagrined that its Las Vegas-based executives made so public their Reid-hunt.
The changes were greeted at the R-J with a mix of excitement at the possibility of a new editorial direction and fear over the potential they could be the precursor to additional personnel cuts. Mostly, R-J staffers were surprised because Frederick and Mitchell seemed entrenched.
Employees had furtive conversations in the newsroom while others talked on cell phones in the parking lot, neither of which is typical, an employee said.
Frederick enjoyed dropping by the newsroom to swap political gossip and trade stories, coffee cup in hand.
Mitchell was a more taciturn manager whose decisions weren’t subject to debate from his employees. He was seen packing up his belongings Friday.
As for whether Mitchell was demoted, Ferguson advised the Sun to contact Mitchell. Mitchell answered but hung up the phone when a Sun reporter identified himself. On a second call, Mitchell hung up again.
Allan Fleming, whose position was eliminated as a cost-saving measure, declined to comment.
As for whether Frederick was fired, Ferguson referred to the article on the paper’s website, which said Frederick decided to step aside.
In the newspaper’s own story, Frederick — who is recovering from prostate and heart-bypass surgeries — was quoted: “It’s been a hard summer for me. I’m looking forward to a more measured pace for a while, as well as my new duties with the company.”
The newspaper said Frederick will become a consultant to Stephens Media and write a weekly column for its newspapers.
Frederick was named publisher in 1992 and became CEO of Stephens Media in 1999. He began his career with Donrey Media, later bought by Stephens, as an R-J reporter in 1976. He moved up the ranks to city editor in 1979 and the following year was named editor of the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. In 1985, he took a job as general manager of the Alamogordo (N.M.) Daily News, another Donrey holding, and returned to Las Vegas as editor in 1988.
The newspaper has been engaged in a controversial undertaking to protect its copyright. Frederick has been a champion of Righthaven LLC, a Las Vegas copyright enforcement company a Stephens Media affiliate had invested in.
Righthaven has sued 166 website operators throughout North America since March, alleging all or part of R-J stories, editorials and columns were posted on the defendants’ websites without authorization.
Righthaven CEO Steven Gibson, a Las Vegas attorney, said the changes announced Friday at the R-J “in no way diminishes the Righthaven business model.”
Ferguson has been involved with newspapers since he was 12 and threw them onto porches in Pomona, Calif. He has had a long career in Las Vegas and in California on the circulation, advertising and business ends of newspaper companies.
Ferguson said the company would continue to bring compelling news and information to local communities in whatever format — print or digital — consumers desire.
Stephens Media publishes 74 newspapers, including several Spanish-language ones, in nine states. The R-J is the company’s flagship newspaper.
Sun reporters Delen Goldberg and Steve Green contributed to this story.