Didn’t the Las Vegas Sun have enough talent?

Interesting — Rob Curley has moved on, again. Back in February 2002, I invited Rob to our university for a symposium about “converged journalism.” He was then the director of new media for The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal. His lively presentation about digital innovations at CJOnline.com captivated the audience, and I heard a lot of complimentary remarks about it afterward.

Later that year, Rob moved across the state to The Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, where he became general manager of World Online (and later, director of new media/convergence) and directed LJWorld.com (which still has one of the nicest news fronts anywhere).

Many people were surprised in 2005 when Rob left Kansas (his home state) for Florida and the small potatoes of the Naples and Bonita Daily News, sister newspapers in the Scripps group. However, for those who knew that John Fish, the new publisher at Naples, had been Rob’s publisher and friend in Topeka, the move seemed less mystifying. (Fish’s move to Naples was announced in October 2004; he left in July 2007 and pursued a consulting deal with CMS vendor Saxotech.)

A rumor at the time when Rob moved to Florida said he had gutted the online staff of the Lawrence newspaper, taking them with him to Naples. I asked him about the rumor; if my memory is accurate, he told me that several Lawrence interns followed him to Naples, but no regular staffers. (Fact-check that before you quote me.)

After attracting a lot of attention for Naples with, among other things, a daily video webcast called Studio 55, Rob moved again — to The Washington Post in 2006. His new title was vice president of product development, and he received kudos for his role in WaPo projects including LoudounExtra.com and onBeing.

The Las Vegas Sun is the most exciting newspaper site right now — Rob wrote a love letter about it in his blog in January. After the Sun hired Dave Toplikar (a friend of Rob’s from Lawrence), I wondered whether Rob might move to Nevada. But I thought it unlikely (even after the love letter) — my guess was he might be lured back to Kansas, but Las Vegas? Seriously?

Well, that shows you why I’m not a gambler.

The thing that puzzles me is not why Rob would want to join the incredible dream team assembled in Las Vegas but rather why the Sun needs Rob — and the nine (nine!) people he’s taking with him from the Post. Call me envious, but they already had a bunch of great people doing great work … and how can they afford to add 10 online savants? Is there a lost Nevada gold mine funding the Sun, or what?

25 Comments on “Didn’t the Las Vegas Sun have enough talent?

  1. the parent company of the sun owns a vegas travel portal site (vegas.com) that brings in big cash

  2. Mindy,

    There is no such thing as too much talent, too much technology or too much money. Just when you think you have enough, you never do.

    I can tell you that Rob took some full-time staffers from Lawrence to Florida. I met Levi Chronister one time while I was at WPNI, checking out their operations, and he has worked with Rob at Lawrence, Naples, the Post and now the Sun. I don’t think he is the only full-timer (online sports editor at LJ World) that went from Lawrence to Naples.

    But Rob does love interns, and I believe he is taking almost as many interns with him to the Sun as full timers. It’s nice to have an internship that might actually amount to something.

    The funny thing is that there are some rumblings that some Posties are happy to see Rob go, but I have a feeling the the Sun made out a lot better in this transaction than the Post did. That’s a lot of talent to lose to a much nimbler operation.

  3. Thanks for bringing up the question of how the Las Vegas Sun is paying for their talent.

    @fred brings up a good point about the travel portal however. I just hope the recession doesn’t kill the tourism for Sin City.

    Honestly, when I saw that the Sun’s redesign involved Django and that several former Curley-ites had relocated there, I wondered if he would be next. I know through an coworker in Knoxville that he made several trips out there a few months back.

    Plus, the unique JOA status of the Sun makes for a perfect Curley playground — no bothersome financials to worry about! (Though I have noticed ads appearing on their Web site now.)

  4. Keep in mind that it can be misleading to say Rob took “full-time staffers from Lawrence to Florida.” The online department is separate and independent from the newsroom (we run many, many more sites than just LJWorld.com, Lawrence.com and KUSports.com); however, there are Web producers who are part of the newsroom.

    That said, Rob (to my knowledge, as it was before my time) didn’t take any of the four designers or developers from the online department. Adrian went to the Washington Post, Wilson went to Apple, Simon went to Yahoo! UK and Dan took over Rob’s job. I hope that sheds some light!

  5. And it’s worth pointing out that as good and talented as the folks joining Rob in Vegas from WPNI are, they were not tightly integrated into WPNI’s newsroom. Not that they didn’t try or want to be, but they just were kept mostly separate from the folks who work on washingtonpost.com every day.

    So while it’s a loss for WPNI, it’s not the same as if they had lost people who were producing washingtonpost.com on a daily basis. And it’s more than rumblings; there definitely were people at WPNI who were happy to see Curley go. But there are still plenty of very good people at WPNI.

  6. Look behind the curtain of that fabulous PowerPoint he gives and what do you find? Great circa 2004 innovation… . And BTW, two of the best people on RC’s team at WPNI are staying.

  7. I always wondered about the cultural compatibility of Rob and the Post — the dot-com has a kind of Post polish, even though the offices are across the river from the print newsroom. Rob is, shall we say, rough around the edges (he’ll say so himself), and while the Post is not exactly a snooty bastion of Ivy Leaguers, it’s also not a place where people typically curse like longshoremen.

  8. I’m not so sure that I’d agree with your characterization of the WPNI culture, Mindy, having worked in both the print newsroom and across the river. WPNI has a much more loosened culture than the paper (there were plenty of times when we heard Post reporters and editors bemoan the site for ruining the Post’s reputation) and there was no shortage of swearing, particularly on difficult days!

    And as far as the relationship between Rob and WPNI went, there’s room for critical judgment all around.

  9. @Derek: You’ve certainly been there more recently than I have. I would quickly agree that the culture is more relaxed in the online shop.

  10. When Rob Curley is the subject, there always seems to be more than enough jealousy to go around.
    In my experience at George Mason University, I have known no one to be more generous with his time, advice and interaction with our students than Rob. Rob never asked for anything back — maybe an intern or two or three, and for that I was grateful.
    As to being “rough around the edges,” it’s that very edginess that makes Rob special. He was not destined to stay long at so corporate a place as the Washington Post; even’s Rob’s famously rough edges were at risk at being smoothed had he stayed too long.
    I’d like to think that Rob did not overstay his welcome there. He contributed. He made a difference. I know he did both at and for George Mason. Now tell me: If you were an educator, wouldn’t you want Rob Curley in your backyard? I’m grateful we had Rob here for two years, and I will miss him.

  11. Having worked in Naples, I can tell you that Curley brought people with him from Lawrence and Topeka. Though it’s always a little bit of budgeting voodoo if they are a “staffer”, a “temp”, or an “intern.” When he left Naples, he took several key people with him, including Tim Richardson and Levi Chronister (who are now following him from WPNI to Las Vegas).

    Part of the deal with his surprise departure from Naples was that he wasn’t supposed to be taking his “team” if he left. Scripps made a HUGE investment to test the model for the whole chain. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t supposed to be gutting the operation, he only immediately took the key people (Tim, the managing editor for online, and Levi, the director of Web operations) and didn’t care.

    Though it hasn’t really been discussed, all of the people responsible for producing Studio 55 in Naples, as well as some designers, surprisingly left earlier this year for the Las Vegas Sun. The huge investment in a failed TV and Web experiment that Naples/Scripps made? Gone.

    When he speaks, Rob talks a good game about convergence, but he breeds a culture of divergence where his team are the cool kids and superior all of the dinosaurs who work on the print side. It’s basically his way or the highway and makes no bones about it. The culture of sharing and working together increased 10-fold after Curley left. I just wish all of those who are constantly writing how amazing Curley is could experience the way he truly works, rather than just buying into his self-glorification.

    With the huge investments made (and expected), The Dude never seems too concerned about how his grand visions will ever make money.

  12. Having worked at The Lawrence Journal-World as a web designer (I was hired just after the Curley era there ended, and worked there until July of last year), I can say with a great deal of certainty that any suggestion Rob “took his team with him” from Lawrence to Naples or any of his other stops would be false.

    I believe only two people (Levi Chronister and Ellyn Angelotti) left Lawrence for Naples, but they were not designers, programmers, or particular technical people — I believe they were both interns at the time (albeit quite talented ones, and I know at least Ellyn has developed quite a diverse skill set since then — but she is no longer with Rob).

    The team at the time consisted of at least three designers (David Ryan, Dan Cox, and Wilson Miner) and three programmers (Simon Willison, Jacob Kaplan-Moss, and Adrian Holovaty) that did NOT leave with Mr. Curley.

    I have a ton of respect for everything Rob brought to the team in Lawrence — there’s no doubt he was visionary. But the reality is that there were then and still are now people working for the Lawrence Journal-World that are widely considered to be at the absolute top of the game in web design and development (by my count, at least six people from that team have contributed to major books on web design and development).

    To give Rob all the credit would be a mistake. The Lawrence team has continued to produce top-notch products long after Rob left (the redesigned LJWorld.com and Boomergirl.com come to mind), and people that previously worked on that team have been involved in other very high profile projects since then, as well (EveryBlock, the redesigned Apple.com, Yahoo, Django, etc.).

    While there’s no doubt Rob was the voice of change that got things started down the right path there, it was, and continues to be, a team effort.

    I think my point is this: it takes a lot more than Rob Curley (or any such visionary) to do something special. You need great people working on those visions, too — and finding them is not always easy. The Journal-World has been able to find those people, both before and after Rob left. I believe the Las Vegas Sun has many of those great people already on staff, and it sounds like Rob’s bringing a few more — so I’d expect things to work out quite swimmingly, there.

  13. He tried to take Dan Cox when he left Lawrence. http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=84692

    Following him to Naples were Ellyn, Levi, Ira Spitzer and Nick Hollensbe (and Tim from Topeka). To Washington from Naples immediately were Levi and Tim, (and Ira went to Newsweek a couple months after Rob left). He’s taking 9 from the WPNI, and 4-5 left Naples for Las Vegas earlier this year; including Denise Spidle, Ryan Macafee, Alex Adeyanju (the group behind Studio 55) and Todd Soligo (the senior Flash programmer).

    He does keep a lot of the same people around him. I agree that many talented people stayed in Lawrence and they continue to do great work. And many people from each location have stayed or moved elsewhere to do great things.

    I guess Las Vegas must be planning great things.

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  16. Dave and Jeff, just some clarifications and thoughts, in as close to a chronological order as I can make on a Friday afternoon:

    — When Rob went to Naples, I was the only full-timer from Lawrence who went with him (I had been the Journal-World’s online sports editor — running KUsports.com and “Game” — for 2.5 years at that point). Ellyn and Ira had been interns working with myself on “Game” the summers of 2004 and 2005. We were all full-time employees in Naples, but not so in Lawrence. The rest of the team that stayed in Lawrence (everyone Jeff mentioned, plus online editors Dave Toplikar and Phil Cauthon) was and is an incredibly talented group that continues to do wonderful work there or elsewhere.

    — Just to clarify, Tim was in Naples months before any of us arrived, and Nick came from New York, not from Lawrence. Yes, he had been an employee of the television station in Lawrence while we were there, but he had taken a job in New York well before our leaving for Naples happened. As for Dan Cox, I know that Dan is smart enough to make his own decisions, so saying Rob “tried to take” him puts responsiblity/blame on shoulders where it doesn’t belong. (On a similar note, saying Rob is “taking” people from WPNI to the Sun — or any previous changing of jobs — is a bit disingenuous. All of us have made our own decision on if we wanted to go to Las Vegas, stay at WPNI or find a job somewhere else entirely.)

    — Had I not gone to Naples with Rob, Ellyn and Ira, I don’t think I would have stayed at the Journal-World much longer, either. The KUsports.com job is an incredibly fulfilling one, but it’s also one that requires a tremendous amount of time and effort to do properly to meet the demands and expectations of the KU fan base. I left the Journal-World for Naples as much because it was an opportunity to move out of Kansas for the first time in my life and experience somewhere and something new as to continue working with Rob and the others who went. I loved working for the Simons family and with everyone else at the Journal-World, but it was rapidly approaching my time to leave before I became a townie 😉

    — More on Rob “taking” us when he left Naples for the Post: I left completely of my on volition. While I loved the people I worked with in Naples and the work I was doing there, I was having a hard time living in the town itself (a pale-skinned, redheaded computer dork doesn’t really become friendly with sunlight and beaches) and saw Rob’s departure as an opportunity for myself to move somewhere that was more my style. I had contacts at various publications and organizations in the area and would have been just fine even if I hadn’t ended up working with Rob again. I can’t speak for Tim or Ira, but saying Tim immediately left is at least technically wrong as he didn’t start at the Post until a couple months after Rob had started there. I also can’t speak for the other people who left Naples more recently, though I have to imagine that they wouldn’t have left Naples if they (still) greatly enjoyed it there. Blaming Rob (or anyone) for them leaving seems to be a stretch.

    — I can’t speak for the Naples newsroom since I didn’t work on the print side there and our online team was in a different building, but when it came to sharing and working together in Lawrence (where I was on the print side for 4+ years before taking the online sports editor job), sharing and working together was the usual MO, with very few problems. Many print reporters were happy to go on camera or blog, many TV anchors and reporters were happy to do online chats, podcasts or blogs, and online editors were happy to write items for print (we would have done TV stuff too, if we’d been photogenic enough to be wanted for it) 😉

    — I don’t know exact revenue numbers, but I’m 99.9 percent sure that sites/projects in Lawrence were (and are) making money, and I think Naples was doing pretty well financially also, though that was every bit as much to do with having a publisher (John Fish) who was a master salesman and a hard-working ad staff as anything Rob did, if not more (which I’m sure he would readily admit).

  17. I really appreciate all the comments people are leaving in the interest of setting the record straight. Thank you, all.

  18. Curley is the biggest ass who just glorifies himself for the money and before he gets caught out, he leaves or sometimes gets kicked – deservedly.
    People who blog about how great they are almost always not.

  19. Vegas fools. You just bought an expensive dud!

  20. I don’t think the last two comments are helpful, or even fair, and they were anonymous. I let them stand, but with reservations.

  21. Is is not true that the group being imported was highlighted in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times as having failed in their Virginia (Washington Post) project for lack of market research and too much reliance on free labor?

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