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Editor column: Commitment to transparency when covering ourselves

Published April 12, 2014 5:57 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An associate asked me last week: When you have layoffs in the newsroom, do you really need to write a story about it?

The question took me aback. Of course we do.

His point was that other companies often don't report their bad news.

But newspapers are in the information business. Every day we ask questions of companies, government agencies and public and private individuals that they don't want to answer. We ask those questions because we believe it serves the public's interest.

To take the point further, we often ask people about events that occur on what turns out to be one of the worst days of their lives. Those events often are the definition of news. We are respectful, professional and, in personal situations, compassionate.

So, if we aren't transparent about ourselves, how can we expect others to be open and honest with us?

In the past 10 days, we have produced three stories that directly involve The Salt Lake Tribune. The first was about our parent company, Digital First Media, shuttering its New York newsroom and laying off the 52 journalists producing online content for its 280 newsrooms across the country.

The local angle involved DFM also asking those newsrooms, including The Tribune, for 10 percent budget cuts. Another story on Friday gave the details, including layoffs of eight Tribune employees.

The third story revealed that U.S. Department of Justice antitrust lawyers are scrutinizing a renegotiation of the joint-operating agreement between The Tribune and Deseret News. The new deal was made between Digital First and Deseret Management Corp., which handles the LDS Church's media companies. Among the details is a new formula to divvy up profits that greatly favors the Deseret News.

One of the hardest things for a newsroom is to report on itself. During the past 15 years, we've been there a few times — a fight over ownership of the newspaper, a couple of reporters who made bad ethical decisions and the financial problems of DFM and, by extension, The Tribune.

Journalists debate whether a news organization should even try to cover itself. It can't do it with any degree of objectivity, or so the argument goes.

Journalism precepts, though, if followed, can keep a newsroom on the ethical high ground. One rule of thumb is to prominently acknowledge any potential conflicts of interest in a story. Another rule is to put separation between the newsroom players in a story, and the reporters and editors covering the story.

We are confident, in reporting on ourselves, that we can do it with integrity and honesty. In fact, it's something we have to do. We want to be transparent with our readers, just as we work to make other institutions and individuals accountable. If anything, our standards will be higher.

We intensely covered the real estate and banking industries in Utah when the housing bubble burst. With the news industry facing the challenges of the information revolution, we plan to report on that — and us, when appropriate — as well.

Terry Orme is The Tribune's editor and publisher. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com.