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Winder-Deseret Connect mess casts shadow on citizen journalism model
Media » Deseret Connect mess casts a shadow on the model.

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"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.

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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.

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"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."

pbeebe@sltrib.com Twitter:@SLTribPaul

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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