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Nov. 15, 2016, 3:07 p.m.
Business Models

Jon Ralston is launching The Nevada Independent, with polls and Spanish-language features to offer a unique angle on a changing state

“I want to mold a real news organization, not in my image but in an image of independence that has never been seen before in this state.”

“Trump is dead here,” Jon Ralston, a well-known expert on Nevada politics, declared a week before the election, basing his conclusion entirely on early voting numbers that boded poorly for Trump. His claim joined the many other predictions — many incorrect — about how the race would end up.

But Ralston, as it turns out, made one of the few correct calls: Trump did lose the state of Nevada, ceding its six electoral votes to Hillary Clinton.

With the election over, Ralston, who has covered Nevada politics for more than 25 years, is turning his attention to The Nevada Independent, a new nonprofit news site that he plans to launch in January, just in time for the the 79th session of the Nevada legislature. (Politico first reported the site’s launch on Monday.) The site, which will cover Nevada politics, business, and government, will be wholly independent, donation-funded, and a new, unique voice in Nevada media, Ralston says.

“I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a long, long time. Now the resources are available and I think that the state is ready for something like this — in fact, based on the reaction privately and publicly, I think the state’s really craving something like this,” he said. “Whether that’s related to the election results or the media atmosphere in the state, I don’t know.”

I spoke with Ralston about the thinking behind The Nevada Independent, his post-election takeaways, and how the site fits into the changes in Nevada’s media ecosystem and demographics. A condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Ricardo Bilton: There have been a lot of questions and concerns from political reporters about everything the pre-election polls got wrong this time around. Did the election change any of your views about polls and how they’re used?

Jon Ralston: I could go on all day about this question. One of the things I think I’ve learned a lot about during my many years covering politics is how to read polls, and how to not take polls at face value. News organizations have frequently not had the the sophistication, time, or diligence to dig deeply into the polls to see if anything might be wrong with them. This has gotten even worse in the 24/7 era of news, which isn’t how it was when I started. People are thirsty, dying for information, and they want to be first to put out numbers.

The amount of bad polling that’s treated with the same reverence as good polling created an environment where mistakes are inevitably going to be made about the state of a race. They do not take the time to dive into the internals of a poll to say, “You know what — this doesn’t sound right.” It can really be damaging and affect the course of a race if you do that. It’s a real disservice to readers and viewers.

Bilton: How were you able to call Nevada right, when so many people got, say, Florida and North Carolina wrong?

Ralston: I certainly had a couple of advantages. I’ve been doing this for so long, and I know the state pretty well, and I know voting patterns. I have archive data and I follow races. The second thing is that Nevada is a smaller universe than these other places that you’re talking about, and 70 percent of the vote comes in early, so you can make some judgments about that unless there’s going to be some aberration in past turnout patterns. You have to factor all of that in, which I did.

Bilton: It seems as if those factors are going to be pretty important to the mission of The Nevada Independent. What do you think will be unique about the site?

Ralston: We want to be a transparent, ethical, in-depth news source that covers, first, the Nevada legislature in a way that it’s never been covered before. The Nevada legislature only meets every other year and it starts very soon after our launch in early January. And we’re going to cover the legislature in a way that no one has ever seen before: With daily reporting, with in-depth issue reporting, and with data-driven reporting that has never had the kind of resources devoted to it that we are going to. We hope to show people through that four-month period — the legislature sessions are constitutionally limited to 120 days — what we can do and the kind of talent we’re going to bring to bear.

Another thing that will set us apart: We plan to hire a very good pollster to do regular polling in the state to try to get the pulse of the community. We don’t just want to know what the community is thinking, we want them to interact with the site in a very significant way.

Bilton: What do you think the key issues will be for the site, besides just following government?

Ralston: We’re going to be focused on education, on the economy, on the financial health of the state — which, despite the recovery, is still somewhat precarious, and there’s a very large budget deficit to deal with. We’re certainly going to be talking about energy issues, which are a huge concern in Nevada, with the issue of major companies trying to leave the grid and rooftop solar becoming controversial. Energy is one of the most complicated issues out there. We’re going to try to make it accessible to people.

Bilton: What about the demographic makeup of Nevada right now? The state is 28 percent Latino. How is that going to be reflected on the site?

Ralston: We’re going to have Spanish language features on the site and accessibility for Spanish-language speakers and radio and television stations right from the start. Our end goal — although it won’t start out this way — is that you are going to be able to toggle between English- and Spanish-language versions of stories.

Bilton: Where do you see this fitting into the larger media environment in Nevada? Is this filling a gap left by the big newspapers?

Ralston: I don’t necessarily see it as filling a gap as much as that we’re going to do something that I’ve always wanted to do and I don’t believe anyone has really done, which is launch a totally independent, nonprofit transparent organization. We’re going to list all of our major donors, and potentially all of our donors, right there on the site, so people know who is funding the site. There will be no questions about intervention from owners that every for-profit newspaper in the country eventually has to confront. We hope we’re going to create a new paradigm for how journalism is delivered here in Nevada.

Bilton: How are you thinking about the business model at this point? Mostly donation-based?

Ralston: We’ve raised a certain amount of money already that we think is enough for us to begin operating in January, but we hope to raise a lot more. We’re going to raise from everybody — from corporations, from individuals. We’re going to seek foundation grants. We’re going to do what nonprofits do. We’re going to raise as much money as we can, from anyone who wants to give it to us.

Bilton: Why is the donation model so important to the mission?

Ralston: I want people to read The Nevada Independent and believe that what our team is producing is the truth. Does that mean we’re going to be perfect? Of course not. I would guess we’re going to have to run a correction or two. I would guess we might miss some stories. I would guess there will be holes in our coverage. But they will be errors that are brought about because mistakes are made or because of staffing issues. They will not be made because we have an agenda and are trying to intentionally trying to slant our coverage. That just will not occur. People will see that for themselves when we start publishing.

Bilton: How much of this launch is in reaction to The Las Vegas Review-Journal, where there have been a lot of concerns about owner Sheldon Adelson’s influence over editorial? Does what you’re doing have a greater urgency now?

Ralston: I had thought about doing this before Adelson bought the Review-Journal. This is not about the Review-Journal or the Las Vegas Sun or any other media outlet. This is about The Nevada Independent. We want to do something different. We want to stand on our own. Inevitably, people will draw comparisons as they do about any media outlet in a city or state, but this is not about any other outlet.

Bilton: What about voice? You certainly have a voice that has attracted people to your coverage and helped you get a radio show and PBS program. How much of that voice will be present with The Nevada Independent? Will you have a viewpoint?

Ralston: The Nevada Independent will not have a viewpoint. The reporting will be straight reporting. We will have opinion columnists. I will have a column occasionally. How often, I don’t know — I will have to see how much time I have. I will probably still blog and stay on Twitter.

The Nevada Independent, though, is not about me at all. My voice will still be there in terms of having a column and maybe a blog, but this is going to be about the staff who are going to produce great daily investigative journalism. I want to mold a real news organization, not in my image but in an image of independence that has never been seen before in this state.

Photo by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 15, 2016, 3:07 p.m.
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