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News Blog

Open Container: Neutered Media

by Josh Loftin
Posted // 2010-08-23 -

"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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Posted // August 29,2010 at 22:45

Yeah, the rest of the media aren't really covering it, though I imagine that's going to change once the Deseret News actually announces their changes.

The story that I would like to see told is how things at the Deseret News got so bad. What caused the problems that they face today, and could they have been avoided?

By the way, this is where I'm getting frustrated with Josh Loftin's coverage of this issue. He has a very critical stance on the current managment while speaking very fondly of his grandfather's "legacy", yet in my view, his grandfather likely shares some of the blame for what is happening now. He was the chairman of the board during the turning point in the paper's history, and it appears that he failed to structure the paper such that it would survive.


Posted // August 27,2010 at 09:18

Hey buddy, let's rant a little too.

Let me get this off my chest....even you have to admit one of your "keys to success" at the News was your relationship to grandpa and DN chairman. You were a bright star and got all the cushy assignments and promotions and NO ONE dared get too critical of you. Once GPa was gone, you knew your days were numbered in a newsroom that now focused on going to church and being scoutmaster.

But let's also look at the DN plight. You cannot tell me that all of a sudden sunlight went to darkness at the DN. Didn't a board of directors meet monthly to have a catered lunch and get a nice paycheck and, presumably, review all the numbers (circulation, budget, spending, etc.)? Even Glibert was on the board and shouldn't he, a disruptive techno guy, seen this coming? Typical board meeting begins with lunch. They all get a secret leather binder chock full of papaers and numbers. The room is dark and the non-publisher and non-CFO drone on with their spin on how good things look. Many of the board try hard not to snore loudly. Lights on, contents of books shredded, votes taken and out the door with payment in hand. Heck of a deal! No homework, no analysis on their own time. Most of the board are community movers/shakers who, in their own companies, have lots of analysists and help to keep successful. No so on the DN board. Just lunch, dim lights, nice spin on numbers, payment, and do it all again next month.

Did you ever get hard numbers in the newsroom? Did any of the non-leaders ever come to you and say "we have to do better and improve revenue"? I doubt it. Yet look who is getting the boot from the DN? Not former board member Gilbert or non-publisher or non-CFO or anyone else who SHOULD have seen this coming. Just the hard working folk who actually report and put the stuff i the paper or on the web.

But Gilbert has a marching order to get the bottom line black. Poor guy has a lot of pressure. He's smart. He is hiring church-going white BYU grads and relatives of general authorities. Not a bad plan. When you eventually need more church approval and bucks, having a nice, loyal BYU/church connection will keep Gilbert getting big bucks. Look at who he's hiring. Non-paper folk, non-journalists, friends and good church folk, mostly male and white. Watch the upcoming exodous...all experienced journallists, few management and none who should have seen this coming. The few remaining managers get to keep their nice homes and debts while the worker bees with famiies to support get the boot.

KSL radio and TV is next. Revenues dropping, morale in the basement -- watch that one next.

On the big boot....What did they do with benefical life? On the last day of the month they let hundreds go. Made sense. End of month, end of benefits, great savings. Watch it happen at the news too. It's all about the bottom line. Disrupted families with no health coverage "all of a sudden" -- watch it happen. Severance package? Sure. Can they buy insurance? Sure. But you try in today's economy. The future? Lots of high-paid consultants and "managers" -- few leaders and fewer who will actually produce the news. Lots of famiiles hurting when long-time employment ends. Any big bosses in the unemploment line? Don't think so. They get mission calls and HEFTY buyouts to "retire." All confidential, of course.

But let's look at other factors. KJZZ? No one left to hardly turn on the lights. When the Jazz pulled the plug to pander to their greed, KJZZ employees lost out. When BYU pulled the football plug on KSL (due to greed) KSL lost out. When the U pulled the plug on KUTV (due to greed) KUTV lost out. It's all about greed. When KSL began free classifieds, both papers hurt.

Why doesn't the Tribune (or KSL) dig around the News? They all hurt if the News goes down. The Tribune is tied to the DN with a joint agreement and cannot survivie without the News. KSL knows its next. But watch the hiring of more high-paid folk at the top. Gilbert is no fool. He's stacking the deck to ensure church backing. Willis has nothing to lose, he can go back to retirement. Even Gilbert's friends can mostly go back to teaching and call the DN a fun experiment and write books about what went wrong. Never mind the people impacted.

Blame? Sure, let's hose the employees who never attend a board meeting, never see a financial statement, never have budget numbers, never know true circulation numbers....these soon-to-be-gone workers were just doing their jobs, at the direction of "smart" people who should have known what the numbers said.

Meanwhile, watch Gilbert continue to hire BYU friends and church authority relatives to keep his star shiny with the church. KSL is next.

Maybe, Josh, you should look through grandpa's collection of non-shredded board meeting notes and see if anyone saw signs of impending trouble. I'll bet he nodded off in board meetings too. You might want to interview former board members and get their take as to why community business leaders never challenged what they were told and simply ate a catered lunch, took their pay and voted for everything. Betcha find a complete lack of "oversight" which is one purpose for a board of directors. Shame on them! None of them are hurting for insurance or work!

Some of us are really glad we retired from the business before it all went to hell.


Posted // August 26,2010 at 10:32

crawler done in by deseret news bosses who called singleton, who called conway.