Nevada expert Jon Ralston on his plan to reinvent local news and why the Silver State swung blue

Kerrie Mitchell
Managing Editor
Jon Ralston, NBC News Analyst, appears on “Meet the Press” in Washington, D.C. in 2016. (Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

Jon Ralston found himself in an odd position among political pundits on Nov. 8: He was one of the few who got his part right. In the days before the election, the longtime Nevada journalist and commentator all but called the crucial swing state for Democrat Hillary Clinton based on early voting numbers. And despite Donald Trump’s shocking national victory on Election Day, the prediction proved correct: Nevada remained virtually the only positive sign for Democrats, swinging Clinton’s way and delivering a new Democrat to the Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto, to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Ralston has been covering politics in Nevada for more than 30 years. He’s written for multiple Nevada newspapers, hosted a TV show on PBS and run his own website, Ralston Reports, among other ventures. So it was perhaps a bit of surprise when he announced shortly after the election that he was launching a news startup, the Nevada Independent, a donor-funded site to cover Silver State politics that debuts on Jan. 17. The dismal state of local coverage in the U.S. has been a huge theme in media during the past few years — from the closure of bureaus to the collapse of local newspapers and the paucity of state polling this election cycle. Will Ralston be able to reinvent a business plan for hyperlocal news? We talked with Ralston about his election night, what Democrats can learn from Nevada and what stories he’s looking forward to covering.

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Kerrie Mitchell: On Nov. 7, you updated a post for KTNV saying, “Trump is dead here, barring a miracle or anomalies invisible not just to me, [but to] many other experts.” How do you make a call like that?

 

Jon Ralston: I have a lot of experience with the state, and I’ve obviously developed a deep network of people I can trust on the ground. Also, I’m a complete data and poll geek. In the last few cycles, the Democrats have just absolutely destroyed the Republicans in voter registration. In Nevada, there’s a two-week period of early voting. And I watch the turnout there, and it is generally quite predictive in the election overall. Almost 70 percent of the people vote early here or by mail. [The Democrats built up] a big-enough lead that I knew Clinton was going to win. She won by less than I thought she would, but that was more a function of the collapse on Election Day of the Democrats and the huge turnout in rural Nevada.

 

What was election night like for you?

I did some TV commentary, so I was on air most of the night watching the returns come in. I thought Hillary was going to win the national election, as did almost every other person, I think, including Donald Trump. I had much more granular knowledge of Nevada, so I had no idea what was really going on in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or Florida or Michigan. I had developed this brand of saying, “We matter” — that Nevada is a really important state. And I guess at one point — I wasn’t watching MSNBC, but they were talking about how Nevada’s going to determine the election. It turns out that wasn’t true, because the blue wall crumbled.

 

What made Nevada different this cycle from other states that trended Republican in the end?

First of all, Harry Reid has erected here just an absolutely amazing political machine that he’s been able to, because of his position, fund, so they have essentially unlimited amounts of money to do what in my opinion is what political parties should do: register voters and turn out voters. He also made sure it was staffed by incredibly skillful people, including a woman named Rebecca Lambe, who’s been here for 12 years and took over the party.

[She] was called back to do an audience with the Democratic senators after the election. Nevada is sui generis in ways other states may not be: Nevada is a small state, the universe is smaller, so the number of voters you have to get is smaller in general. But the model that Lambe set up would work in any state, as long as you have the right people who understand data, who understand where the votes are. You also have something unique in Nevada called the Culinary Union, which is the biggest union here — 55,000 to 60,000 people — and which is a Latino turnout organization. More than half the members are Latino, and they had a huge impact on this election, as they have on other elections.

 

How will things change now that Reid has retired?

Reid is like a professional meddler, so it’s going to be difficult for him to completely take himself out of it. But we have witnessed the complete dismantling of the apparatus that he set up. You have all the key cogs gone — Lambe is going to retrench and do other things, and … the guy who could raise money like nobody else [is gone.] You have this vacuum. The machine has crumbled. Can it be built back up? Maybe, but it looks like it’s going to be a mere shell of its former self.

 

Let’s talk about your new venture, the Nevada Independent. When did you start thinking about this?

The one thing I’ve always mused about doing over the last few years is to run a news organization. I started thinking about it in the middle of last year after a show I had on PBS got canceled, and I firmly decided to do it by the end of June.

 

Local news has obviously been in crisis for some time now. What do you plan to do differently to keep the money coming in?

 I decided I was going to start being entirely donor-based. I didn’t know if it would be doable — turns out it was. It put me in an unprecedented and, at times, uncomfortable role of going to people I’ve covered at times and asking if they’d be willing to donate. Being a nonprofit is very, very important, because I think it makes it more attractive for people to donate to, either because of what nonprofits signify or because it’s a tax write-off for major corporations.

We didn’t want to start with advertising and that, later, we may reconsider. The one thing that we’re going to do is we’re going to be totally transparent: We’re going to disclose all of our donors on the site, and we’re going to let people ask me questions about donors and whether donors influence content.

 

What do you hope to provide that’s not there now?

More depth, more coverage of public policy issues. And we hope to take the image of the media that exists now and turn it on its head by not talking down to readers, but talking with readers. By not coming off as totally arrogant and smug, as we’re often described.

 

What’s the story you’re most eager to jump into?

Two things: One is we want to cover the legislature, which is very remote to people generally here. It’s in Carson City, and people in the Las Vegas [area] — with three-quarters of the state’s population — don’t really get it.

We’re also going to have a Spanish-language component. We talked earlier about the big Latino population. [That] community here has been ignored. We have hired a Spanish-language reporter, and we’re going to have a Spanish-language part of the site. Our ultimate goal is to have the entire site in English and Spanish. We won’t get there for some time, but that’s an ignored audience. It’s not just, quote-unquote, Latino issues that aren’t getting covered. It’s that they’re not getting the full news because none of the English-language media caters to them.

 

What makes Nevada such a unique place to cover?

It’s like a child that has never grown up. The players — while they change a little bit — don’t change that much. They still make the same mistakes, and they make them in entertaining ways. What people don’t realize — because they think we’re all crazy and weird out here because of the gaming and the legalized prostitution — is we’re a reflection of America: the demographic melting pot that exists, the rural-urban divide that exists. I’ve been covering politics here for 30-plus years — I’ve never been bored.
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