Monday, August 23, 2010

Open Container: Neutered Media

Posted By on August 23, 2010, 5:29 PM

"You were spitting venom at most everyone you knew / If you truly knew the gravity, you'd know which way to go."—Modest Mouse, "Spitting Venom"---

Local news outlets are supposed to cover local news, or so one would assume. Yet, when it is reported that one of their own -- a daily newspaper -- is potentially laying off half of its staffand moving out of its prominent downtown location, the response is like rats scurrying from the light.

Forgive my self-indulgence, since the story mentioned above was what I reported 10 days ago, that the Deseret News was potentially laying off 30 to 60 percent of its staff. Since publishing it, the story has been picked up by a few national blogs, and generated significant website traffic for us. Eventually, it forced the Deseret News CEO, Clark Gilbert, to issue a non-sensical statement denying things that I had not reported as fact, such as the end of daily publication for the paper. (I stated that the paper becoming "online-mostly" was a theory I had, but one most people said was insane).

Since that blog's publication, however, very little has happened locally, as far as I can tell. Channel 2 posted a short bulletin on their website the same night I published the blog, but pulled it down. Channel 4 and Fox 13 both had short blurbs, as well, mostly comprised of Gilbert's statement. The Salt Lake Tribune wrote a story, a week later, that basically included the statement and then a bunch of history about Gilbert's theory of disruptive change. The most aggressive local coverage was Tribune blogger Glen Warchol, who wrote two posts. One recounted the layoff numbers I reported, and included a couple of other rumors that I've heard. The second one was a deeper analysis of Gilbert's theory of disruption. Finally, RadioWest did a program today about it, which included me as a guest.

There are some decent arguments that could be made to justify ignoring the story. Those include:

It's just not news: The obvious first step, and obviously flawed. An LDS Church-owned daily newspaper laying off dozens of people, potentially reducing its publication schedule, and moving? Big news in any town, and when it's an LDS Church property in Salt Lake City, even bigger.

It's not accurate: I defend my blog post as accurate, right now, which is not to say that it will be right when layoffs happen. This is a fluid situation, as most big news stories are until their completion, and as things change, I will update them. But the information I have is from good sources, and more telling, I have not been told by one person -- from alpha dog Mark Willes down to staffers -- that I am wrong, despite many attempts before and after publication to make sure I wasn't completely drunk. The closest was Gilbert's statement and a staff e-mail, both of which basically said nothing has been decided. That is hollow encouragement for staffers. But beyond that, if it's not accurate, then it is also the local news outlets responsibility to determine that for themselves. Instead, the only thing they seemingly did was recite a statement.

Bad news begets bad news: This is a psychological thing. Reporters don't want to write about the crashing of a major media outlet because it hits too close to home. Okay, if that's the case, then find a reporter who will report on the issue.

Larger access issues: I know that my reporting on the Deseret News, in particular, has burned my bridges with not only that paper, but probably other dailies in this state, not to mention friends of the LDS power brokers. The same would likely happen for anyone who started really pushing these questions on Willes & Co. But, that's the risk journalists run. If they are lobbing softballs at the big dogs/bullies in hopes of sometime joining the cool club of PR hacks or preserving the contacts they have, they should leave the profession immediately. However, this is a long-time issue with journalism. Look at how the White House or Wall Street is too often covered.

Partnerships: This is probably the best reason to justify the lack of coverage by the Tribune (who should be all over this story) and KSL TV and Radio. They don't want to report the bad news about their business partner. It's a shoddy excuse, but wholly believable.

Sourcing: This may have the most validity. I have many good sources inside the paper who trust me and were willing to provide me information. Those were, in large part, because of my time spent at the paper and, I would argue, respect for my grandfather, L. Glen Snarr, who was the chairman of the board for a decade. But, since I have reported the anonymous confirmations, I would argue other news outlets would be able to piggyback on my reporting and give this story a deeper analysis. Problem is, I don't know that any of them tried very hard.

To wrap this little self-serving rant, let me say this: This is only the beginning of this story. The media landscape in Utah is about to experience a major upheaval. I just hope that other people decide to cover it, as well.

Now, for a little bit of other, non-media news:

Education Funding: Legislative leaders will not sue the federal government so that they can reject $101 million in education money.

National Park Pollution: The Grand Canyon is facing a lot of pollution problems, most notably in the Colorado River.

USU Schedule: The Aggies will have a typically droll preseason schedule, which will really hurt them when they have to play Idaho six times in the soon-to-be 4-team WAC.

Immigration Arrests: Yeah ... those felons ICE arrested? Maybe not so felonious.

The Open Container Update is published every weekday, except when it's not, which happened last week while I was on vacation.

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