The story of Joe the Jeweler and how The Tribune is changing commentary submissions, George Pyle writes

The Tribune will discourage submission of commentary pieces from third parties. Here’s why.

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Joe the Jeweler was a little confused. And a bit steamed.

“What is up?” he texted me a week ago.

What is up is an explanation as to why, going forward, The Salt Lake Tribune will be wary of commentary submissions that do not come to us directly from the credited author. We strongly discourage submissions that come to us through a third party, such as a public relations firm, think tank or activist group.

To be considered, pieces must include a direct means of contacting the author for confirmation that he or she did submit the piece and vouches for its authenticity and originality. Authors who want our immediate attention would be better served to cut out any middlemen and submit the piece directly to me at gpyle@sltrib.com.

Thereby hangs the tale.

Last week, Joe Maughan, owner and operator of 9th and 9th Jewelers in Salt Lake City, was hearing from friends about a commentary piece with his byline that appeared on our website March 7. Something to do with urging Congress to go easy on internet giants such as Amazon and Google as new anti-trust laws are written, as there might be collateral damage to small business owners — such as 9th and 9th Jewelers — that use those platforms for their own enterprises.

Don’t look for that commentary on The Tribune’s website. It’s not there. I removed it (a rare occurence, we strongly prefer to issue a correction or clarification) when Maughan told me that, not only had he not written it, he couldn’t even claim he understood it.

“I read that article over five or six times and I still don’t know what it meant,” he told me.

I told Joe the piece came to me from a Boise-based public relations outfit called Riverwood Strategies. The essay was attributed to him and included his business address and his phone number. It is common for public relations firms to handle the details of such commentary pieces, and it seemed legit to me.

The name of the company rang a bell with Maughan and, after thinking about it a bit, he explained he had spoken to someone with Riverwood and had indeed given permission to have his name added to a statement in favor of laws that don’t crush small business as Congress goes after tech giants. He had done that before on similar issues, he said, such as being in support of Amazon starting to collect sales tax on online sales.

But Maughan hadn’t understood, he said, that the commentary was to be represented as something he had written himself.

“My family has been in this business for 40 or 45 years,” Maughan said. “We do not involve politics in our business.”

Maughan also allowed that the conversation with Riverwood came at a bad time and didn’t command his full attention. Not only is it his busy season, what with all those engagement rings being bought and sized for spring weddings, but his family’s dog had just died.

“I was like, ‘All right. Yeah. Whatever’,” he told me.

Jeff Johnson is vice president of Riverwood Strategies. He was appropriately appalled when I called to ask what happened.

“He did give us verbal approval to be the signer of this content,” Johnson said of Maughan. “I’m a little surprised that he says he doesn’t understand it. He’s always been very engaged.”

Johnson apologized, quite rightly saying it wasn’t good for his company to be attached to such a turn of events.

“We are embarrassed by this,” he said. “We take ownership of it and we apologize.”

It is not unusual in the commentary game for big companies, interest groups, public relations firms and real people to collaborate on getting thoughts written down and distributed to newspaper opinion sections across the country. We are all trying to encourage the exchange of ideas, and none of us expects the credited author to have come up with every thought all by him or herself, any more than we expect presidents and governors to have personally written every word of their own speeches.

But we do expect a fully informed sign-off.

I should have called Maughan ahead of publication to confirm his authorship. Going forward, that’s what we will be doing.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Pyle.

George Pyle is opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune. Really.