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Some Utah legislators don't like Deseret News' citizen journalism

Published November 17, 2011 7:56 am

During breakfast with news boss, some express their mistrust.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Amid controversy over West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder using a false identity to write stories for the Deseret News, the newspaper's president met Wednesday with state legislators to tell them how its new business model — that includes using some unpaid citizen journalists — is the wave of the future.

But several legislators, as they ate a free breakfast supplied by the Deseret News at the Capitol, said they don't like the model, and don't trust news generated by it.

"This model that you're pursuing I think is broken. I don't even think it's a model you can justify," said House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

He said that because of layoffs and cutbacks at the Deseret News, it has fewer journalists covering committee hearings and political news regularly and in-depth — and some lack background and may not know how to get at the heart of issues accurately.

"If you want to come to cities or jurisdictions that are used to seeing journalists, and you don't want to be there, and you want to have a Deseret Connect [that uses unpaid citizen journalists] — where obviously you don't have a very good vetting process — it's going to undermine what you are doing," Hughes said.

Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert told lawmakers that his newspaper doesn't cover politics as traditional news media do, but instead covers it only as it relates to the newspaper's six new areas of focus: families, education, faith, care for the poor, financial responsibility and values in the media.

"What should the Deseret News be good at? Cynical, negative, skeptical journalism, or journalism that focuses on helping people improve their lives?" Gilbert said.

He added that it sees delivering news via the Internet as the wave of the future and a way to reach audiences worldwide — but said that is often resisted by traditional journalists. So his organization created divisions outside their control to develop and push news by Internet.

Hughes said the system has lead to poor news coverage. He noted that Winder said he decided to use a pen name to write positive stories about his city when he noticed that 56 percent of Deseret News coverage about his city had been on crime, and thought it created a negative image.

"The reason is you are short staffed. You have only so much resources, so you are going for open sourcing and this participation journalism," Hughes said. "Instead of having journalists who come to committee meetings, people are out there trolling for bad news."

Hughes said an analogy of what the Deseret News is doing is, "If you have an airline that flies to St. George, and you decided not to fly but have buses. You're still going to have transportation, but you are not an airline."

Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, also complained that the newspaper and its new model is often getting news with which he is involved — such as his fights on illegal immigration — wrong, or taken out of context.

"If the content is so wrong, it doesn't matter how good the model is," he said.

Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, said, "Deseret News has been one of the worst as far as being fair toward anyone who is conservative," adding he believes they do not get fair treatment if their stands do not reflect Deseret News editorial positions.

Hughes also asked if Deseret Connect can guarantee that no other contributors are working under a false identity like Winder. Gilbert said, "No. We are going through now and adding rigor to that process," and noted that Winder had to make numerous false statements to gain the access he did.

Gilbert added, "We have professional journalists who do remarkable work. But they are not the only people who write for us. And people in this state like what we do in our newsroom and they like what we do with our features."

Gilbert said he had scheduled the meeting with legislators long before the controversy erupted about Winder over the past week, and wanted lawmakers to understand his newspaper's new business model.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorville, jokingly asked if lawmakers attending the meeting would be tainted by accepting the free breakfast offered. Others asked if the breakfast was worth less than $10 — the maximum value of any free gift they can accept — and were told it was.

Editor's note: Lee Davidson is a former Deseret News reporter.