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The neon story machine: Former Vegas journos strike it big in D.C.
Story by Steve Friess and
Photography by Hernan Valencia
Why are former Las Vegas journalists finding such success in Washington D.C.? Our city breeds a talent for telling good stories
you do everything and learn how to do everything,” says Smith, who worked in Vegas from 2001 to 2011. “For a city of its size, Las Vegas had so much big, breaking news that you kind of got used to it.”
The rough-and-tumble of the Vegas media crucible also provided important lessons, too. Because the city continued for much of the last decade to have two robust, competing newspapers, journalists who came here learned more about vying with colleagues for stories than reporters emerging from one-newspaper towns. Some, like Hennessey, recall that fondly, noting, “It had just the right amount of cutthroat competition.”
Others, like Ball and Goldman, were targets of barbs that their later success would prove to be a function of jealousy and pettiness. In 2006, for instance, Ball was mocked as one of the town’s worst reporters by Las Vegas CityLife on account of some minor story errors. “I wasn’t happy about it, but it’s part of journalism and part of covering a beat like politics, people are going to say really nasty things,” Ball says. “I knew I was not the worst journalist in Las Vegas. I didn’t let it bother me.” Goldman, for his part, routinely swapped harsh emails with a prominent columnist who delighted in pillorying him.
There are many explanations for this surge in Vegas-trained journalists in D.C., not the least of which is, as Hennessey noted, it’s where the jobs are these days in a rapidly changing and financially challenged media industry. But, also, once they’ve arrived in the capital, their intimate knowledge of increasingly visible Nevada politics becomes a clear asset as the Beltway tried to understand Harry Reid’s ascent, John Ensign’s fall, the impact of the changing ethnic and racial makeup of the electorate and more. Hennessey, for instance, understood the irony of President Obama hunkering down to prepare to defend his economic record in a 2012 debate with Mitt Romney at Lake Las Vegas, simultaneously the epitome of Vegas’ bubble hubris and crash devastation. After her piece describing that contrast ran in the L.A. Times, The New York Times and others followed with similar perspectives.
The economic crash did figure in many decisions to move on, and several of these reporters lost their homes and savings to foreclosure or short sales “just like everybody else,” as Bennett puts it. That sudden shift in Vegas’ narrative from limitless growth and prosperity to a notorious financial disaster area was difficult to navigate personally and professionally; Skolnik lost his job in a slew of Greenspun Media Group layoffs, for instance. Looking back on it, Goldman feels he let readers down by not scrutinizing the questionably, highly risky economic underpinnings of the boom. “I regret that,” he says. “I should have taken a more critical look at how over-leveraged the casinos were.”
Bennett also found it harder to feel good about publishing a luxury magazine amid such widespread devastation. “When you watch the rise of something as we did and see what happened, I took it personally,” Bennett says. “I watched fine dining places figure out how to make burgers and fries, I watched people toting coolers of beer as they checked in to the Bellagio. It became hard to see what it was and see what it was turning into.”
Some just found Vegas a better place to be young and childless than older with families. But all who made this leap look back on their time in Nevada with fondness. The lessons from those stints resonate today in important ways. Goldman, now a married father of two, credits Vegas with showing him “how to deal with big corporations who have spokesmen who protect the interests of their companies.” Says Bennett: “I learned about ethics, reporting and sourcing — I learned about journalism every day without taking journalism masters classes.” And Ball, who also had her second child this spring, gave the town a lion’s share of credit for her success: “Almost everything I learned in journalism, I learned in Vegas. And it got me here.”
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