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Deseret News, 1 year after mass layoffs

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According to an interview City Weekly had in January 2011 with Deseret Connect Director Matt Sanders, “transparency and trust” are what keeps contributors from abusing the system. “We train our contributors to use sources and to always provide value to the reader, not advertising,” Sanders wrote.

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Some contributors, however, could benefit from more training.

Contributor Leslie Probert has produced several stories about food storage that reference recipes found in her own food-storage cookbook.

Jared Balis, listed at the bottom of a news article as an insurance agent and owner of Utah Insurance Advisors, wrote a Nov. 22, 2011, article about how to fight insurance costs with health-savings plans that twice linked directly to his business’ Website, with information on applying for the plan.

Numerous Deseret Connect contributors happen to write almost entirely glowing book reviews for family-oriented books. Many of these books are published by church-owned Deseret Book or Covenant Communications, a publisher owned by Deseret Book. Not only is Deseret Book owned by the LDS Church, but Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew is on the Deseret News editorial advisory board.

Perhaps most confusing to readers are articles written by David Fierro, identified as a “communications consultant” who specializes in “transportation.” What is not disclosed is that “communications consultant” actually means he does public relations for Horrocks Engineers, a Utah County firm that plans and designs transportation systems for local government agencies. On Nov. 16, 2011, for example, Fierro covered a UDOT conference, where he quoted former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett who called for an increase in the gas tax to fund transportation projects and also quoted UDOT director John Njord. The article did not disclose that Fierro’s employer—Horrocks Engineers—is currently under contract with UDOT on various projects throughout the state.

On Sept. 3, Fierro wrote an article for the Deseret News titled “Park City’s walkable vision ahead of planning curve,” that lauded the city for creating pedestrian and bicycle trails. The article quoted the mayor, a member of the Park City Council and other city officials, all the while never disclosing that the author worked for the engineering company under contract by Park City to administer the very same walkability project that was so “far ahead of the curve.”

Asked about the inaccurate disclosure, Fierro writes via e-mail that he was between jobs when he first signed up with Deseret Connect, which is why he is identified as a “communications consultant.” As for whether his editors talked about how to disclose possible work conflicts, Fierro says simply that they didn’t.

“There was no discussion about it,” Fierro writes.

Deseret Conflict
While the paper may have changed structurally and philosophically, physically it was still landing at subscribers’ doors as it always had—which troubled West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder.

“There was a drastic reduction in community coverage, but they still kept the crime desk going, which was giving a very distorted view to many Deseret News subscribers about what’s going on in our city,” Winder says. (see infobox p. 21)

When Winder challenged Gilbert about the unbalanced coverage of his city, he says Gilbert told him he needed to find someone who could submit those stories directly through Deseret Connect.

After searching in vain, Winder decided he would have to do it himself—a task that turned out to be pretty easy. While a Deseret News follow-up story on the fiasco reported that Winder had created a fake Facebook account and that he spoke regularly with his editor, Winder says that was not the case—he provided only a phone number, a fake address and a fake e-mail. Winder says that while Deseret Connect had a good online system for providing feedback, he spoke only once on the phone with his editor.

Winder later met again with paper management and was told explicitly they wouldn’t accept submissions under pen names, so he canceled his Burwash account and opened one under his name. That experiment lasted only a short while before Deseret Connect decided it wouldn’t allow public officials to write for the company, lest it appear as an endorsement.

Winder regrets the incident and the cloud of controversy he’s created. But he also believes Deseret Connect could make some simple changes to keep future “Burwashes” from appearing, like holding an orientation for contributors, at least in the Salt Lake City area, so editors could meet them in person.

“I think citizen journalism does have a real future,” Winder says. “Not to replace journalists, but to supplement journalists. Just as a neighborhood watch team would never replace your professional police force, but it can supplement them.”

“Good Enough” News
At the same time Winder’s experiment writing as a mayor ended, Deseret Connect allowed city staffers to write stories about their own city. Stories Winder wrote under his own name often had an editor’s note at the top of the article alerting readers to the fact that Winder was the mayor of West Valley City. Readers might not even notice the disclosures that identify author Aaron Crim as a spokesperson for West Valley City writing about businesses in the city, or stories about TRAX lines in South Salt Lake that clearly identify author Charee Peck as the chief of staff for the city of South Salt Lake.

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For journalism professor Hanley, who’s spent the past 23 years in journalism and also worked for one of the first online newsrooms, citizen journalism is a way for papers to remain relevant, by reconnecting with the communities they’ve stopped covering. But disclosure of a contributor’s background is “essential”—and putting that disclosure at the bottom of the article isn’t good enough.

“If a news organization is going to print a newsletter for city hall, it’s perfectly fine to do, but it’s not journalism and it shouldn’t masquerade as journalism,” Hanley says. “That’s not quite fraud, but it’s sure as heck coming close to it.”

In January 2011, Sanders told City Weekly the program is “a way to build new vitality in journalism.”

“A pluralistic, civil society requires unabashed coverage and oversight of crucial institutions of government.”

While Sanders declined to comment for this story, it would seem apparent that much of that oversight of local city government is now being left to city staff themselves.

Spreading the Gospel
More than a year after the experiment began, the Deseret News reaches a wider audience with almost half the staff it once had. Editorials on immigration and Mommy-blogs-turned-articles are part of a Web presence that, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s Sept. 30, 2011, report, garnered the site 2.6 million unique users during the previous six months— besting even The Salt Lake Tribune, which drew 2.49 million unique users. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that, according to a November Deseret News article, even the paper’s print circulation is spiking, with Gilbert announcing a 24 percent increase from 2010 in the Sunday circulation of the paper.

But even here the reporting could benefit from more precise fact-checking, because while the paper’s Sunday print circulation made a strong improvement, going from roughly 75,000 to 83,000, that’s about a 5 percent bump—still significant, and well above national averages. But the Deseret News article forgot to mention that part of that 5 percent bump likely comes from counting the addition of a weekend insert the company distributes to a number of subscribers to the St. George Spectrum and the Logan Herald Journal. And it’s only when one adds e-editions and digital versions of the paper modified for smartphones and reading devices like the iPad and Kindle that the “print” circulation reaches the 24 percent Gilbert referred to.

But the media company’s Web presence is hard to ignore. Indeed, the gospel—from Old English meaning “good news”—is spreading. Good, positive, uplifting stories are racing, via the Internet, around the world millions of times over. But it still might be too much good news, spread without enough good reporting, accountability and credibility. Even the method by which the digital news itself has been promoted in the past is questionable.

In June 2011, City Weekly reported that DeseretNews.com director Chris Lee asked Sanders to tell his more than 1,000-person Deseret Connect “army” to “like” a Deseret News story on the social-media site Reddit.com, where users post links and vote on them; popular Reddit links can quickly become viral Web hits.

Although Reddit’s Website considers mass voting as a prohibited abuse of its site, Lee saw a Deseret News story about a homeless man in Salt Lake City who didn’t know he had an inherited a small fortune as one that “has the makings of a social-media hit. I posted it on Reddit and want you all to promote it,” Lee wrote in a memo City Weekly obtained.

As of December, Lee has now moved from directing the Website to being the Deseret News publisher. Pumping up numbers on a social media site like Reddit.com is likely far from unusual for many groups or companies, but does seem odd for a values-driven media organization. But the values in question are not necessarily the hallmarks of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics that ask media to seek truth and report it, avoid conflicts of interest and be accountable.

For professor Hanley, losing credibility through poorly vetted and untrustworthy copy will eventually hurt a media organization.

“A lot of these buzzword-chanting publishers need to understand that,” Hanley says. He argues that if stronger copy desks can stop bad and conflicted copy from going through, then a media organization like the Deseret News can make a strong impact specializing in its niche of under-covered faith stories. Those stories can then reach a global audience without a cloud of doubt hanging over their credibility.

Perhaps as a sign of moving in that direction, the paper recently announced Paul Edwards, the editorial and faith pages editor, has been named the paper’s editor. And, according to a memo obtained by City Weekly, Doug Wilks from The Press Democrat in northern California will be soon taking over the Deseret Media Companies news division.

As for stronger freelance editors and copy staff, there are still plenty of refugees from the layoffs like Williamson around who are trying to find their footing a year since the “disruption.”

“I was 50 years old at the time of the layoffs—too young to retire, too old to start over,” Williamson writes. “Right now I’m living off my savings, wondering where to go from here.”

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