Winder-Deseret Connect mess casts shadow on citizen journalism model
West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder's admission he tricked the Deseret News and KSL.com into running stories he wrote under a fake name has exposed the danger of relying on citizen journalists to make up for manpower shortages as some newspapers try to gather information they can't get any other way.
The mayor's mea culpa has generated a mix of scorn and sympathy for the LDS Church-owned News, which has turned to untrained contributors to produce news, opinion and other information for its readers through a network called Deseret Connect. The move came after a massive layoff last year that cut its staff of professional reporters and editors almost in half. The paper also shifted away from time-honored news reporting to emphasize what it says is values-oriented journalism written for readers of faith.
"What Winder did was he exposed the fraud that Deseret Connect is. They are not up front with where these stories are coming from. [The writers] are essentially freelancers who make the audience feel like [the paper has] a staff, and that's not true anymore," said Kim Zarkin, assistant professor of communication at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
Unfair, says Deseret News CEO Clark Gilbert, who thinks his publication is being pilloried by media critics for the very reasons that it should be earning praise that it is an innovator, especially now, when print readership and advertising revenue that supports labor-intensive newsrooms are declining
"Nationally, people look at Deseret Connect as a pioneer in these efforts," Gilbert said. "While we remain committed to our [professional] journalists, it's also naive to ignore the community for their voice, their talent and their insight. These are smart people and they love and live in our community, so we will continue to invest in [them]."
Gilbert isn't a lone voice. He received words of compassion from, among others, Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas, who said newspapers will make mistakes as they learn to make the most of citizen journalism.
"I don't think this is enough of an argument to stop using citizen journalism because it is part of this new media environment," Alves said. "We all have the obligation to try to do things to strengthen journalism in this new era. Sometimes we make mistakes in our efforts to innovate. When we realize we make a mistake we admit it and life goes on."
The Burwash affair • Winder was elected mayor of Utah's second-largest city in 2009 with 76 percent of the vote. At 33, he became West Valley City's youngest CEO. One of his passions is writing. So during a meeting of the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America early this year Gilbert said Winder should find a freelancer to write about West Valley City because the News no longer had enough reporters, Winder decided he would take on the task albeit surreptitiously. Under a bogus name, he would write stories about his city that he thought would give News readers a more nuanced, less crime-focused, view of life there.
At the time, Winder was already writing articles for the Oquirrh Times. In September 2010, the mayor began writing articles under the byline Richard Burwash that explored topics such as a bond for parks and trails in West Valley City and UTOPIA's plans to expand its fiber-optic network into more city neighborhoods.
So it was with little trepidation that Winder, aka Burwash, set up a Deseret Connect account through which he would contribute articles to Utah's second-biggest newspaper and its KSL.com affiliate.
"They asked for an email address, a phone number, a [physical] address and an image, and that was it. They also had places to provide optional information such as a Facebook account, a Twitter account, biographical information, interests what sorts of things do you like to write about?" Winder said.
Winder established an email account for Burwash. The phone number and street address he provided were phony; the picture he gave to Deseret Connect was of someone else. Even so, Deseret Connect welcomed Winder, and the mayor-cum-citizen journalist was in business.
Over the ensuing months, Winder's only contact with Deseret Connect was when editors raised questions about details in a story. A note would show up in Burwash's email, and Winder would call back.
"They seemed less hung up about who the contributor was and more about the content," Winder said. "I will say this, they were very diligent to fact-check. If a story seemed biased, they would push back. They put less of their emphasis on the identity [of the contributor] and more on the content."
Joel Campbell, a journalism professor at Brigham Young University and a media columnist for The Tribune, was a freelance Deseret Connect editor for four months earlier this year. He quit, in part, because he grew disenchanted with the citizen journalism model developed by Deseret Connect, which 15 months after it was established, has close to 1,900 remote contributors, as well as numerous freelance editors across the U.S. Their content has generated more than 24.5 million page views online.
"I hope [the Winder incident] was an aberration. But I think there's plenty of evidence to show that citizen journalism and this model of professionals and amateurs on a website does raise a lot of concerns about accuracy, sources and agendas."
A matter of opinion • In May, Deseret Connect contributor Nicole Pollard wrote a lengthy story about a study linking 83 cases of autism to childhood vaccinations. The story provided no information about Pollard's professional qualifications for attempting such a complex and controversial subject. Campbell said the story was "slanted" toward the views of critics of childhood vaccination.
"You would expect a story like this to contain more than just unsourced and unattributed statements from other news sources and a forthcoming study," Campbell said. "My concern is the expertise and balance [may be] lacking [in complicated stories]. I teach journalism students at BYU. Many of them aren't prepared to tackle these tough topics when they graduate."
Shortly before he quit Deseret Connect in August, Campbell edited a column about a conference on abortion by contributor Susan Roylance that was labeled as breaking news when "it was obviously an opinion.
"She does show up in the columnists tab of the Deseret News. However, when readers look at her columns it may not be clear that this is an opinion versus news reporting," Campbell said.
Campbell wasn't the only person who had a funny feeling about some of Deseret Connect's contributors. In May, former Deseret News managing editor LaVarr Webb sent an email to executives of Deseret Connect and KSL.com in which he expressed concern about a Burwash article that looked at a former UTOPIA executive. Webb said the story was unfair and did not meet the standards of professional journalism because Burwash had not contacted the executive or his attorney for comment. It is unclear how Deseret Connect executives responded to Webb's allegation.
Other stories may not be as sensitive. Even so, they can produce a false impression.
In August, KSL.com posted a feature story about the opening in Utah theaters of the movie, "Joseph Smith, Volume 1: Plates of Gold." The story, which ran under the headline, "New Joseph Smith movie gaining attention on the East Coast," was written by Kelly Smurthwaite, who was identified as a KSL.com contributor. Not divulged was that Smurthwaite was a publicist hired to promote the film. What's more, the story did not provide evidence for Smurthwaite's claim that the movie about the Mormon leader, aimed at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints audience, had played to sold-out theaters in the East and in Europe.
Industry evolution • As Alves, the Knight Center director, suggested, citizen journalism is here to stay. Among many adherents is John Paton, the CEO of the Journal Register Co. newspaper company who in September took the added role of CEO of MediaNews Corp., which owns The Salt Lake Tribune. He believes strongly in the concept, and in his view of a balanced newspaper, one-third of its content will come from readers and community input. Another third will be news aggregated from other sources, and the final third will be reported and edited by the paper's professional staff.
Paton was unavailable for comment, so it is unclear how his vision will play out in The Tribune. The paper, however, has in the past experimented with citizen journalism. It sought out contributors who would submit short items about events in their communities that would appear only online. Terry Orme, The Tribune's managing editor for news, said the experiment was short-lived. Contributor interest was light, and in most cases the content didn't meet the paper's standards, he said.
"The editor expended a lot of energy vetting contributors and submissions for conflicts of interest and accuracy. The payoff just wasn't there, and we have walked away from it," Orme said.
The Tribune does use paid freelancers to write some arts stories and reviews, as well as prep sports and education stories that generally appear inside the weekly Close-Up section. Orme said the paper may revisit the community contributors experiment in the future. If it does, The Tribune will be clear on labeling and telling readers what the content is. It would not supplant news, he said.
If citizen journalists are now part of newspapering, then editors will have to decide how they should be used. Westminster's Zarkin, who is not a big fan, said a legitimate use of everyman-journalists is to paint a broader picture of news events. She pointed to a case in England, where a reporter, with help from numerous contributors, was able to piece together a story that contradicted the official version provided by police.
"In many ways, that's a better definition of citizen journalism. Everybody can document a piece of their world, but it doesn't remove the professional journalist. The professional journalist becomes the center of it. They verify whether the information [from contributors] is true. They put it into a better context," Zarkin said.
For Edward Pease, a journalism professor at Utah State University, citizen journalism is only as good as the ingredients that make up the story. Referring to the Winder incident, Pease said that what the mayor wrote in close to a dozen stories he prepared for the News, KSL.com and the Oquirrh Times wasn't factually wrong.
"But the problem with community journalism, and the Winder case in particular, is that unless there is a vetting process in the newsroom, you may get garbage in and garbage out," Pease said.
Gilbert is steadfast in his defense of Deseret Connect. In remarks to skeptical Utah lawmakers last week, he noted that he couldn't say with certainty that no other contributors were working under a false identity.
But he added that steps were being taken to improve what he later told The Tribune was already a rigorous vetting process.
"I believe the protections that we have at Deseret Connect are above industry standards," Gilbert said. "What we have learned is that we will always have to strengthen them."