The Deseret News spits in the eye of traditional journalism with a potentially cutting-edge move.
Earlier this week, the Mormon-owned newspaper made a move that likely steamed many journalists, including some of their own staff: They began using datelines on stories to indicate where the story primarily happened, as opposed to the traditional, AP-style that dictates a dateline is used to indicate the reporter was actually there.
I specifically single out journalists, myself included, as those concerned about the change. The accusations are easy, beginning with the fact that newspaper is being run by Joe Cannon, who had zero journalism experience when he took over the helms of the paper a couple of years ago. He has also demonstrated, in words and actions, a disdain for journalism ethics and standards. So the initial reaction, from me and others, was that this was just one more shovelful of dirt on the D-News grave (at least, as a respectable newspaper).
But guess who doesn't actually care? Pretty much everyone else in the world. Most non-journalists (and even a few journalists) who I asked said that they always thought that a dateline was telling the reader where the story happened. They never thought it always meant the reporter was there. So, this is a change that actually puts the newspaper in line with readers expectations.
Curious about the reaction in the newsroom — where I used to work, by way of disclosure — I asked a number of D-News reporters, editors, and others. Almost all of them said they are not bothered by the change, especially because the paper is being honest with readers. Only a couple were angry about it, and their concerns were generally more practical than ethical.
It seems this change was driven by online needs, to make their website more prominent with search engines. Also, the D-News is apparently rolling out a "communities" website, which will compile stories for readers interested in hyper-local news. To accomplish that, dateline modifications were needed (because, apparently, tags are a foreign concept).
The scary thing for journalists, however, is the way in which this dateline policy could lead to abuses. The most glaring example at the D-News is their Washington, D.C. coverage, which is done from their Salt Lake City office by Lee Davidson. The newspaper does not have a Washington bureau, while The Salt Lake Tribune does, but with a Washington dateline on every Davidson story, the paper could hide that lack of an actual D.C. reporter from their readers.
To his credit, and the newspaper's credit, Davidson is insisting that a note be placed at the end of his stories, indicating that the story was reported from Salt Lake City. It is honest, and assuages concerns about dateline fraud.
"That should prevent any ethics problems, and make clear to everyone what we are doing," Davidson told me in an e-mail.
I agree with his assessment, by the way. Journalism is entering a new era, and one of the biggest behind-the-scenes change is the ability for a reporter to cover almost anything remotely. That causes problems when readers look to a newspaper for added expertise that cannot be garnered by watching the event on TV, such as sports or political conventions. If newspapers are going to change their dateline policies, which they should maybe consider, they need to be honest with their readers. And in this case, as far as I can tell, the D-News is being honest.