It's been hard to witness the Deseret News' spectacular fall from grace this week. That CEO Clark Gilbert has made digital news the priority at the expense of its print edition could not be more obvious. Today's front page [pictured] with a hyphenated headline trailing off the page points to an appalling inattention to detail for what has always been a paper's most vital asset: its front page.
But then there's Gilbert's inexplicable decision to invite lawmakers to breakfast on Wednesday to showcase the newspaper's business model. Who in the journalistic community does that? A newspaper buying breakfast for a group of elected officials? These are the very people the paper is supposed to report on -- why does he need their camaraderie or approval? Shouldn't the value of a paper's business model, if it has value at all, be obvious without the benefit of a blueberry muffin? (Again, as was noted in a blog last week, we include the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which Gilbert appears to be oblivious to.)
Finally, today we had the D-News' attempt to justify its poor choice of inviting mythical contributor Richard Burwash to write as a citizen journalist. Written by business editor Jordan Burke, titled "West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder's deception tests a news industry in transition," the article has the feel of Clark Gilbert pacing around in the background. You can almost hear him rattling off ideas to the harried writer: "Remind them how Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera got fired at the Tribune [when the two reporters lied about information they sold to the National Enquirer during the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping]. And tell them we're in good company: The New York Times had Jason Blair making shit up, and The New Republic had Stephen Glass' fabrication. And then there was News of the World's phone hacking." So Burke included these examples of reporters and editors behaving badly, even though they have nothing in common with the notion of citizen journalists gaming the system. They were real people with real jobs from which they were famously fired or asked to resign.
To be fair, West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder -- who adopted a pen name with which to write not only puff pieces for West Valley but a story that benefited clients at a PR firm where he worked -- did end up losing his "day job." If he hadn't ratted himself out, he could have taught "black hat" PR classes and been considered a guerrilla-marketing hero. He discovered something most PR professionals would wet themselves over: a way to have a newspaper publish articles exactly the way you want them to appear. All you have to do is write the articles yourself and pretend to be a citizen journalist. Now that he has shown it can easily be done, other publicists will follow (if they aren't doing it already). And the editors at Deseret Connect will discover how much work it is to ensure that citizen reporters are balanced and accurate and are real people without blatant axes to grind. I predict they will arrive at an inevitable conclusion: We need professionals to do this work.
The D-News can blame Winder all it wants; it can point to the Tribune and stress that its new CEO is also banking on "user-generated content" to fill its Web and print pages. It can excuse its lapses due to being distracted by its own transformation. But after a week like this, you expect some serious groveling by the disruptive technicians at the D-News, not spin doctoring.
If the D-News is no longer a newspaper, we'll ignore it and cease to judge it harshly. But if it is, we'll turn up the volume and say it again: "Enough, already. Get back to the basics and publish credible journalism."