For Jon Ralston, Nevada politics has been a lifelong fascination. He started out as a night police reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1984, but by 1986 he was covering politics. Since then, he has worked for all three major Nevada newspapers as well as various TV stations. He has also appeared on MSNBC, FOX News and NBC’s Meet the Press to talk about Nevada politics.
“There’s a friend of mine a long time ago who said politics is the only game for adults,” Ralston said. “But it’s also a game with real-world consequences and Nevada’s just a great place to do it. It’s a crazy quirky state with a lot of fun people to cover.”
In 2016, Ralston had been doing daily TV shows for more than 15 years and was feeling a little burned out. So when his show with PBS statewide was canceled, he saw it as a blessing in disguise. He started thinking about the kind of thing he wanted to do next.
He had always wanted to run his own news organization and mentor young journalists, so he brought the idea of an online independent newspaper for Nevada to Elizabeth Thompson. Along with being a longtime friend of Jon’s, Elizabeth had a lot of experience running independent news sites.
“She’s got a great head for journalism and business,” Ralston said. “This thing would not exist without her.”
The “thing” Ralston is talking about is called The Nevada Independent (https://thenevadaindependent.com/), or The Indy, for short. The site launched on January 17, 2017 with the mission to “change the face of journalism in Nevada and establish new paradigms for nonprofit, community-supported news organizations.”
Ralston said the site looks and feels exactly how he wanted it: clean and elegant without any obnoxious advertisements playing in the background. However, getting it that way wasn’t an easy process for him. He had to go around asking people for money.
“I’m not a fundraiser,” Ralston said. “I would’ve loved to have had someone some distance from the fundraising, for ethical reasons otherwise, but I thought people were going to contribute because of the brand I had built over 25 years covering politics.”
Turns out he was right. The first big companies to show interest were MGM Resorts and Switch, which each donated $250,000. With that kind of seed money, Ralston started looking at reporters. He talked to Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels, who had worked for the Associated Press, and Megan Messerly, who worked for the Las Vegas Sun.
Ralston wanted two years of funding secured before he offered contracts to the reporters. Part of that funding was to provide housing, so all three reporters could live in Carson City for the Nevada legislative session. He added a donate button to the splash site and before long hundreds of people contributed amounts ranging from $5 to $10,000. By November of 2016, they had secured the funding and Megan, Michelle and Riley signed on.
The three of them rented a U-Haul in Las Vegas, packed up all their things, and moved to Carson City together. Rindels brought her cat Macy and Messerly brought Moby, her dachshund-Chihuahua-poodle-Yorkie mix. They set up shop in a house just a few blocks from the Nevada State Legislature building.
On the day the site launched, everyone, including Thompson and Ralston, gathered around the kitchen table of the house and stayed up into the early morning hours making sure everything was ready.
“There was so much and passion and excitement about the project,” Rindels said. “We stayed up until probably 3 in the morning.”
Since that day, The Indy has broken some major stories and written some beautiful explainers about the political process. Ralston said he loves the work his reporters are doing so much he sometimes gets emotional just from reading the copy. He compared watching the Indy grow to watching his kid grow up.
“I’m really getting into this whole being an editor thing,” he said. “All I need is this is the pipe and the tweed jacket, I think.”
Ralston has a lot of plans for the future of the Indy. They are working towards having every story in Spanish as well as English, and they recently launched a podcast called IndyMatters. When the Nevada legislative session comes to an end, at the beginning of June, the reporters are looking forward to diving even deeper into Nevada’s crazy, quirky politics.
Open Room Media is a project of the Reynolds School of Journalism.
PODCAST MUSIC CREDITS
Introduction Music: “Happy Alley” by Kevin MacLeod:
Original Music by Fil Corbitt: