Business & Real Estate

Why is Jackson Rancheria casino tribe buying a newspaper?

Customers fill the floor at Jackson Rancheria Casino. The casino’s owner, the Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians, is buying the Amador Ledger Dispatch newspaper.
Customers fill the floor at Jackson Rancheria Casino. The casino’s owner, the Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians, is buying the Amador Ledger Dispatch newspaper. Sacramento Bee file

The Indian tribe that owns Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort has entered the newspaper business, buying the main paper in Amador County in a move that strengthens the tribe’s influence in the largely rural community while diversifying its own economic base.

The Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians said Monday it purchased the 161-year-old Amador Ledger Dispatch and will fold the paper’s operations into the Acorn News, a competing newspaper the tribe created several weeks ago. The tribe paid $1 million for the subscriber base and other assets of the paper, said Rich Hoffman, chief executive of the tribe and general manager of the popular casino.

Buying the Ledger Dispatch caps several months of turmoil and community intrigue surrounding the Ledger Dispatch.

The once-a-week paper was purchased in 2013 by Tami Tran, a Bay Area media investor. Hoffman said much of the staff left the paper recently, including its longtime publisher, Jack Mitchell. Mitchell and the other staffers then went to work for the Jackson Rancheria tribe, launching the Acorn News.

Amid the Ledger Dispatch’s troubles, the tribe sensed an opportunity.

“The tribe felt maybe it was a good opportunity to start their own publication,” Hoffman said in an interview. “The tribe supports our local community.”

The purchase puts the tribe in an unusual position and raises questions about journalistic independence. Few tribes, if any, own newspapers, and the Acorn will be reporting on a potential competitor to the Jackson Rancheria casino. The Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians is proposing to build a casino near Ione.

Hoffman said the Acorn will be published independently, without any interference from the tribe.

“The tribe is committed to maintaining the properly ethical separation between business and editorial,” he said. The Acorn is currently published from the Jackson Rancheria tribal offices but at some point will find an office in Jackson, where the Ledger Dispatch has been published, he said.

People in the Amador community were taking a wait-and-see approach on the change in ownership. “I like a newspaper to report the facts, whoever owns it,” said Brian Oneto, an Amador County supervisor. He said people respect Mitchell, the publisher, and were troubled to see so many staffers leave the Ledger Dispatch.

The Jackson Rancheria tribe isn’t the first casino owner to try its hand at newspaper publishing. On a grander scale, Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson last year purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal, raising concerns about the paper’s editorial independence. Adelson is a major donor to the Republican Party and conservative causes, and has committed millions of his own money to the effort to lure the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas.

Indian tribes, meanwhile, are on the prowl for new ways to make money. Despite the success many have had operating casinos, Indian tribes have been diversifying into real estate, manufacturing and other businesses in recent years. “You see quite a bit of saturation in the gaming,” said George Williams, interim chief executive of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.

For instance, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, operator of a casino in San Bernardino County, owns several hotels, including a 62 percent stake in the Marriott Residence Inn near Capitol Park in Sacramento.

Tran, the former owner of the Ledger Dispatch, said she sold the paper because “I don’t want to be in a newspaper war where there’s no profit in it.” She disputed the $1 million sale price reported by Hoffman but declined to elaborate.

Mitchell, the Acorn News’ publisher, said the Acorn will retain vestiges of the Ledger Dispatch, including a commitment to publishing stories about the region’s history. The paper will publish twice a week, he said.

Over the years, the Ledger Dispatch has had numerous owners, including McClatchy, publisher of The Sacramento Bee, which owned the Amador paper from 1989 to 1997. The paper has gone by several names in its history, and Hoffman said the tribe opted to use the Acorn name as “a real fresh start.”

Acorn is shorthand for “Amador & Calaveras Objective Regional News.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler