Las Vegas Sun

October 30, 2014

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Sun’s leader says goodbye newsroom, hello family

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Tiffany Brown

Reporter Alexandra Berzon, from left, Deputy Managing Editor Drex Heikes and other Las Vegas Sun employees gather April 20 as Managing Editor Michael J. Kelley, center, talks about the paper’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for stories about construction workers’ deaths on the Strip.

Michael J. Kelley

Michael J. Kelley

Michael J. Kelley, the Sun’s managing editor since 1997, told his staff this week he will retire by the end of this year.

“My goal has been to put out a good newspaper every day,” said the 67-year-old newsman, who led the Sun to winning the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the most prestigious prize in journalism. “And I leave satisfied that this staff is doing that.”

Kelley said his older brother died this summer, and he started to think it was time he spent more time with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, ages 10 and 8.

Though his retirement was something of a shock to the Sun’s news staff, it wasn’t for Brian Greenspun, the Sun’s editor and president.

“I have known for a number of months about Mike’s desire to retire. He has reached an age that allows him to focus more time on his grandchildren than on his family at the Sun,” Greenspun said.

“Mike Kelley came to the Sun 12 years ago when we were struggling for an identity as an afternoon newspaper with a dwindling circulation,” said Greenspun, whose father, Hank Greenspun, started the paper in 1950.

“When we had an opportunity to create a newspaper for the future a few years ago, Mike came up with a plan and executed it to perfection,” Greenspun said. “The result of his leadership is the Sun’s Pulitzer Prize as well as other awards far too numerous to mention.

“While there is much more work yet to be done as we look forward, Las Vegas and the Sun will have to continue without Mike’s leadership. We just couldn’t compete against his family. We wish him the very best and, on behalf of everyone at the Sun, we extend a most sincere thank-you for the years and the success he has given us.”

Kelley, who waved off the Sun’s doing its own story on him Tuesday, finally agreed to an interview after working another customarily long day in his corner office in the Sun newsroom.

His start in newspapers

Kelley came to the Sun from the Daily Southtown, which was owned by the Pulitzer family and was circulated in the south part of Chicago and the southern Chicago suburbs.

He’s been in and out of the newspaper business since he was a teenager.

“I started as a copy boy at the Kansas City Times in 1960,” he said, remembering the large wooden desks, which each had a spittoon.

He put himself through college, working as a reporter for the Times, majoring in history with a minor in English at Rockhurst College in Kansas City.

Eventually he became the political writer for the morning Times and its sister afternoon publication, the Kansas City Star.

In 1969 Kelley left journalism and went into politics, working in Washington, D.C., as the press secretary for former Sen. Tom Eagleton, D-Mo., until 1976.

He then entered the restaurant business, buying a Swensen’s Ice Cream territory for parts of two states. He sold it in 1980 and went back into politics, working for Eagleton’s reelection campaign.

In 1981 Kelley went to work as part of a group commissioned to reform the scandal-scarred Teamsters Central States Pension Fund in Chicago, which was plagued by ties to organized crime. After five years the fund was pronounced clean by the federal Labor and Justice departments, Congress and two federal courts in Chicago — “and it’s been clean ever since,” Kelley said.

Kelley then got a call from the publisher of the St. Louis (Mo.) Post-Dispatch, which had just purchased the Daily Southtown.

He was there for nine years, rebuilding the paper’s circulation from 12,000 to more than 70,000, “largely by improving the journalism and making it something that people wanted to read,” he said.

Reinventing the formula

When that newspaper was sold to newspaper magnate Conrad Black, who had just bought the Chicago Sun-Times, Kelley decided to leave and come to Las Vegas to help Greenspun revamp the Sun.

“This is a great news town, there’s no question about it,” Kelley said. “We never lack for important issues and good stories.

“I’ve had a lucky life,” he said. “I’ve always been able to make a living doing things that were not only interesting to me but also had a component of being useful to others. The newspaper business is a great public service career.

“I’m also lucky in that I got to improve two newspapers that were in need of improvement,” he said. “To get to make one newspaper better is amazing. To get to make two newspapers better is extraordinary. I’m grateful for the opportunities and I’ve enjoyed doing it.

“And I’m really proud of what we’ve done with the Sun in the past four years, which has only been possible because of the unwavering support of Brian Greenspun and his family.”

The Sun is in a joint operating agreement with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where the two newspapers’ business operations are combined, and the Sun and the R-J are delivered together in one package.

Journalistically, Kelley turned the Sun into an all-enterprise paper, which makes it different from the Review-Journal, which relies heavily on breaking news.

“The print version is an explanatory, investigative, interpretive, analytical paper that delves deeper into issues, writes long-form stories, and is basically, in my mind, like a daily news magazine, a Time magazine, seven days a week,” Kelley said. “We take that magazine approach and we really work hard to get behind the issues and events and explain what they mean to the people of Las Vegas and Nevada, who are affected by them.

“We reinvented the formula for what a daily print newspaper could do,” he said. “I believe what we did here is very likely to be copied and in time become what daily newspapers will be all across the country.

“When combined with our award-winning Web site, which covers breaking news with continuous updates, as well as comprehensively covering sports and entertainment, the Sun provides its readers a complete package that I believe is the wave of the future.”