In Las Vegas, a Family Goes to Court Over Decision To Shutter Failing Newspaper
Brian Greenspun is suing to stop his siblings from undoing the legacy of their father, Hank, founder of the ‘Las Vegas Sun’
The story is, by now, familiar: A once-powerful newspaper is facing insolvency, and its owners, heirs to the empire-builder of yesteryear, are fighting among themselves, allowing petty concerns about money to split their family and tarnish their legacy. This time, the setting is Las Vegas, where the four children of Hank Greenspun—a publicist for the legendary mobster Bugsy Siegel who ran guns to the Haganah, faced down Sen. Joe McCarthy, and was targeted by President Nixon’s “plumbers”—are battling over the future of the Las Vegas Sun.
Last week, Brian Greenspun—the eldest of the four, and currently both editor and publisher of the Sun—filed a lawsuit that revealed his siblings had cut a deal with the publisher of the Sun’s rival, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, that would shut down on Sept. 1 the newspaper their father had founded. Ending publication of the Sun, Greenspun argued in his court filing, wouldn’t just leave Sin City with a newspaper monopoly. It would betray the memory of his father.
It’s the most dramatic manifestation of a quiet family feud that insiders say has been brewing for years beneath the glossy veneer of the Greenspuns’ public appearances. Just five years ago, all four siblings—Brian, Danny, Janie, and Susan—took part in a hagiographic documentary about their father, Where I Stand, in which each of them asserted the importance of the newspaper he left them. It had, after all, elevated them, too, from being mere Vegas scions and socialites to public custodians like the Grahams or the Sulzbergers—families that used their immense wealth to speak truth to power.
But that upbeat, unified public front, Greenspun confidants say, was as much a tribute to their late father as a kindness to their aging mother, Barbara, who died in 2010 after a 21-year widowhood dedicated to keeping Hank’s most precious creation afloat. It has been widely known in Greenspun circles that at least two of the four siblings, Danny and Susan, had long wanted to shut down the Sun, which, like most local newspapers in America, has become an expensive albatross whose influence, never mind its profitability, has been vastly diminished by the rise of online news.
Along with their sister Janie, Danny and Susan voted on Aug. 7 to end the Sun’s 23-year-old joint operating agreement with the Review-Journal—the only thing keeping the paper afloat—in exchange for ownership of the lasvegas.com domain, through which their family-owned holding company, the Greenspun Corporation, already sells travel bookings and show tickets.
Brian Greenspun cast the lone dissenting vote. In an interview, he said the real villain in the story is his family’s lifelong nemesis, the Review-Journal, currently owned by Stephens Media, the target of his suit. In Greenspun’s view, Stephens Media cannot legally sever its JOA with the Sun because it amounts to a breach of its contract with the Las Vegas public. “It’s easy to gloss over that for all kinds of people because they’d much rather get into the soap opera part of it to the extent that there is any soap opera,” Brian Greenspun said.
But the soap opera matters, because the family’s dispute will affect the whole of Las Vegas—and puts hundreds of jobs in sudden jeopardy. Greenspun knows as well as anybody that the Sun wouldn’t be on the brink of closure if his siblings hadn’t voted to take the deal offered by Stephens Media. (Janie Greenspun Gale and Susan Fine could not be reached for comment; Danny Greenspun declined to be interviewed.) And, in a state where the political landscape features casino mogul and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, Greenspun—a Georgetown pal of Bill Clinton’s and longtime ally of Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, currently the Senate Majority Leader—has provided a Democratic bulwark against the domination of the staunchly conservative Review-Journal.
“My dad spent a lot of time and effort and resources he didn’t have and a lot of aggravation doing whatever he could to save and grow the Las Vegas Sun,” Greenspun said. “He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do for his community and his family. So, you tell me how he would be feeling.”
Hank Greenspun, who was born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Haven and made his way west after completing a tour of duty with the Army during WWII. He went to work for Siegel promoting the new Flamingo Hotel and began publishing the Sun in 1950. That same year, he was convicted of violating the Neutrality Act and fined $10,000 for his role in feeding machine guns and airplane parts to Zionist fighters in Mandatory Palestine. A decade later, Greenspun was pardoned by President Kennedy. By that time, Greenspun had established the Sun as a fearless antithesis to the Hearst papers, which had supported Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts; at the height of the blacklist era, Greenspun publicly attacked McCarthy as a red-baiting demagogue.
Later, Greenspun befriended Howard Hughes and sold him a local TV station he had founded, dealings that left Nixon operatives under the impression that Greenspun had in his safe incriminating documents about Hughes and a Nixon confidant. That safe, recordings later showed, was a second target of the “plumbers”—the same burglars who broke into the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate in 1972.
Greenspun’s children have led far less cinematic lives. They merely inherited a fortune that first emerged out of a controversial 1971 deal in which Greenspun bought 4,720 acres just south of Las Vegas for $280 an acre and flipped immediately for as much as $5,000 an acre. That capitalized his development of a region now known as Green Valley, a juggernaut of high-end gated neighborhoods. He also landed the franchise for most cable TV service in Vegas, which his children sold to Cox Communications in 1998 for $1.3 billion.
But while those businesses took off, the Sun was withering. By the time Hank Greenspun died in 1989, the paper was losing millions of dollars annually. The Greenspun heirs, guided by their mother, nonetheless remained committed to the liberal Las Vegas Sun and turned to Donrey Media, then the publisher of the conservative-libertarian Review-Journal, to establish a JOA—a mechanism devised by Congress in 1970 to help failing newspapers remain in business and prevent dominant papers from monopolizing their regional print media.
The initial JOA between the Sun and Review-Journal was typical of others around the country: The papers combined business offices and print and delivery staffs but maintained separate newsrooms and editorial boards, all nominally under the supervision of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. But the agreement also called for the Sun to become an afternoon paper, a disadvantage that resulted in an ever steeper circulation decline. In 2005, the JOA was amended such that the Sun ceased to be a full-service newspaper and instead became an eight-page, ad-free publication delivered along with the Review-Journal—increasing the Sun’s circulation by 700 percent while saving the Review-Journal’s owners the cost of printing and distributing a second daily newspaper.
It was Brian Greenspun who defended the family’s journalistic legacy. He became editor-in-chief when his father died and publisher after his mother passed, and he wrote strident left-leaning columns on the front page in the same vein as his dad. Brian was so committed, in fact, that the family gave a $7 million gift to the Newseum in Washington D.C., where the top-floor terrace there is named for Hank. A video loop of Brian extolling his father’s commitment to great journalism plays as people step out to take in the view along Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Brian believes in the legacy of his father,” said former Sun City Editor Drex Heikes, who shepherded the investigative projects that earned the Sun a Pulitzer in 2009—the only Pulitzer ever won by any Las Vegas paper. “He’s an altruistic newsman. He believes in the role of the newspaper to have an opposing voice.” As for the others, Heikes said, “Over the years, they were split. My understanding was that Janie would side with Brian about keeping the paper operating. Clearly, there’s been a shift there.”
Indeed, the Greenspun sisters appear to have taken no serious interest in the media business. Janie is known as a major benefactor for animal-welfare causes; Susan, while involved in charitable work, maintains a lower profile. Danny had space in the Sun’s buildings, where he would proudly invite guests to take a swing at the boxer’s punching bag hanging from the ceiling of his sparse office. Viewing himself as a forward thinker, Danny primarily pursued new opportunities provided by the Internet and alliances with the city’s tourism industry. That has proved lucrative; along with hotel bookings, the Greenspun company manages concierge services for dozens of Las Vegas resorts and sells show tickets and tours through vegas.com and lasvegas.com—which it currently leases from Stephens Media for $2.5 million a year but would acquire under the terms of the deal to terminate the Review-Journal’s JOA with the Sun.
The Sun, meanwhile, was a passion project for Brian that his siblings tolerated in a boom era when resources seemed limitless. But that simmering discontent blew up, insiders say, in 2009—the year the documentary came out—as gigantic losses in key elements of the Greenspun family’s real-estate and casino holdings knocked the family out of the billionaires club. The strain was already starting to show by the time the Sun won the Pulitzer Prize: Only Brian and his wife escorted the winners to New York for the ceremony. They flew on a rented private plane, a step down from the family’s jet, which had been sold. “There’s just a lot of bad blood because they’re all used to being gazillionaires, and they’re not gazillionaires anymore,” said one family friend.
But the Sun was also the key to the family’s prominence in Nevada. “With all the wealth they had, it was the Sun that allowed them to be what they were to the community,” said Mel Hecht, the rabbi who officiated at Danny Greenspun’s wedding. “They were giants, Hank and Barbara. They’d be very proud of Brian and very appreciative of him attempting to keep it going because it was their baby.”
Even before the latest lawsuit, the siblings were already in court fighting: Earlier this year, Susan sued Brian to collect repayment of a $2 million loan. That case was settled on undisclosed terms. “It’s a family,” Brian Greenspun said. “Sometimes families get along, sometimes families don’t get along. We’re no different than any other family.”
Still, Greenspun acknowledged being blindsided by his siblings’ decision to give up on the Sun. “I have no idea what the rest of my family knew,” he said. Now he’s hoping to prevail in court, where he’s requested a temporary restraining order on the suspension of the JOA. Powerful forces are likely to line up on his side: Reid, and with him the Obama White House, have no interest in allowing the Review-Journal to be the sole editorial voice in Las Vegas. “This is exactly why you have JOAs,” Heikes said. “Is there a more stark contrast anywhere else in the country between the Sun and the R-J and their total domination of the local media?”
But a stay would, at best, be a lifeline preserving the status quo while a longer-term arrangement is worked out. When asked about a rumored notion that he could buy out his siblings and find other investors to keep the Sun afloat, Greenspun shrugged, “Anything’s possible.” He’s clearly dispirited, despite his reticence about discussing the inner workings of his family. “I’m a little bit at a loss,” he acknowledged wistfully. “I’m the only one who goes to work every day at that newspaper.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Greenspun attended Georgetown University with Bill Clinton, not Yale Law School.
Friess was a staff writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1996-1999 and a columnist for the Las Vegas Weekly, owned by Greenspun Media Group, from 2006-2011.
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