Legalized gambling is on the rise across the US, and media coverage along with it. And gaming's economic impact is being paid more attention than jackpots and moral issues.It's hard to believe that less than 20 years ago, legalized gambling in America was restricted to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and a dwindling number of racetracks.
Since then, the US has become a gaming nation. Not only have Indian casinos been established on tribal lands from North Carolina to Northern California, but state governments have rushed to legalize lotteries and riverboat casinos as a method of raising revenues without boosting taxes. Add to that the recent rise of online casinos that claim to offer the action of Las Vegas or Atlantic City without leaving your den, and it's clear that most American adults have ready access to gambling as an entertainment option.
This explosion has had a huge impact on how gaming is covered in the American media. Instead of focusing on the morality of gambling, the journalistic debate these days tends to center more on the economic impact of gaming operations.
That's not to say that all of the stigma has been removed from the industry.
"With some new reporters, there a lot of stereotypes that still exist about the casino business,
notes Naomi Greer, director of communications for the American Gaming Association. "They think it's a negative thing, so you have to educate them from square one."
Dealing with the morality issue
"You still get some parochial issues in some communities as to whether it's morally right, and occasionally, that's reflected in the reporting,
adds Mark Romig, VP and director of PR for New Orleans-based Peter A.
Mayer Public Relations. "But for the most part, we can convince them to look at the business story of gaming and the economic development, and jobs."
The real challenge facing PR pros is finding the right reporter to cover a gaming story. "There are more and more reporters who are covering the industry, yet it's inconsistent how those beats are assigned,
explains Elliot Sloane, president of New York agency Sloane & Co., which represents Harrah's Entertainment. "At many papers, gaming is not really an assigned beat, so you really have to find a way to get in. It may end up being through the marketing or the technology reporter or the database-management reporters or the advertising columnist. It really tests the acumen of your PR firm."
Some journalists have developed strong reputations for their coverage of the gaming industry, such as Christina Binkley of The Wall Street Journal, David Berns of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, David Strow of the Las Vegas Sun, Joe Weinert of the Press of Atlantic City, Rick Alm of The Kansas City Star, and Rebecca Mowbray of New Orleans' The Times-Picayune.
Journalists quickly find that covering casino companies is a lot more complex than adding up the winnings and posting the profits. "There is a learning curve associated with covering the issues surrounding gaming," notes Robert Stillwell, corporate communications VP with Boyd Gaming.
"Most of the gaming reporters at newspapers are covering everything from HR to company events to new technology.
Stillwell adds that many reporters find the gaming industry an addictive beat: "They may move to different markets or papers, but they stick to the beat."
The government angle
Oftentimes, gaming issues become intertwined with local, state, or even federal politics, which requires reaching to state or local government reporters. There is also the growing public health issue - gaming deals with real money, so the true economic impact of having a casino in a community has to include the impact that gambling losses have on individuals and their families.
Thomas Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, says that for the most part, media - especially newspapers - have gone out of their way to be fair in covering casino gambling. "It's a complicated story, and any success we've had is word of mouth that's been driven by print journalism.
But he adds that casinos often advertise, raising a sticky issue of whether that can have an impact on editorial attitudes, if not news-gathering itself. "The press is being increasingly driven by the bottom line, and the advertising that casinos do is considerable,
But ironically, the complaint from the gaming industry is that the mainstream media is far too obsessed with the small fraction of players who become problem gamblers. In part because the human-interest stories of destroyed lives carries such an emotional wallop, newspapers such as The New York Times, Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and St. Louis Post Dispatch have all run lengthy features or series on the devastating effects gambling can have on communities.
Ed Looney, executive director of the Council of Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, says most compulsive-gambling stories are based on anecdotal evidence. He adds that there has yet to be a detailed scientific study of the true economic and social impact of legalized gambling. Once those studies are done, Looney predicts gaming will emerge as a major public health story as well.
Big winners still attract attention
But for now, the novelty of gaming is still so new in many communities, there is a lot of interest in stories about players who've won big. Stephen Roberts, a senior associate with Porter Novelli San Diego, represents slot-machine company IGT, and pitches local media whenever a player hits a large jackpot at one of the area's casinos. "If the jackpot is big enough, or if the winner has an interesting story, editors and TV producers are interested,
Katie Spring, managing director of Hill & Knowlton's Chicago office, notes that gaming companies often have to compete with hotels and other leisure activities for a reporter's attention. "So we also pitch straight market reporters that we have a company with a good stock story to tell,
adds Spring, whose office represents the Biloxi, MS-based Isle of Capri casino chain. "Or we'll focus on The Wall Street Journal's Workplace section to get in with a story of why Isle of Capri casinos have the lowest turnover of any of their peers."
Spring says there's even the opportunity to leverage current events.
She was able the get the Isle of Capri CEO on CNBC several months ago for a story on regional casinos that were benefiting from people's reluctance to fly to traditional gambling meccas, such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City.