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January 05, 2012 News » Cover Story

Deserted News 

Deseret News, 1 year after mass layoffs

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“That’s where the low morale comes from,” X says. “These people in charge obviously don’t know hardly anything about the journalism industry. Even more troubling is that they don’t respect it.”

X says the leaders from on high at the Triad Center often thought up patronizing “morale-boosting” activities, like asking employees to take part in a raffle to see who could get the most family members to subscribe to the paper. X says the missive sounded like a thinly veiled “edict” until a followup e-mail said the contest was purely voluntary. Managers also concocted themed Fridays, where employees were encouraged to come to work dressed as their favorite movie stars. Patio barbecues and dress-up days are fine, X says, but they are poor Band-Aids for curing low staff morale.

“I don’t want to party; I want to know I have the tools and support to do the best job I can,” X says. “Somehow that escapes them.”

The staff culture between the levels is also different, X says, since many on the “values” team are young, recent BYU grads. Their job descriptions are also different. Besides writing special long-form stories about values topics, the values team also writes numerous articles that require just a provocative headline and little-to-no reporting.

Staff will quote from various national news sources—often on topics of LDS interest, like Mitt Romney or religious freedom cases—and link to those stories in the article. It’s a model used by full-time staff but simple enough that even interns can do it—sometimes with less-than-impressive results, such as when an intern wrote an alarming article suggesting that because a Fox News poll found Americans preferred having boys over girls, a trend of selective abortions might throw off the male-to-female ratio in the United States like they had done in China. The intern linked to a post by a blogger with the byline of “Dingo Ate My Baby” for the article.

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Values reporter Jamshid Ghazi Askar is perhaps one of the most prolific producers of such aggregated content. In the three-month period from Oct. 1, 2011, to Jan. 1, 2012, Askar reported and wrote several long, well-written stories on values subjects, like a profile of a values-driven filmmaker in Massachusetts. But of the 63 stories he wrote during that period, 50 required no original reporting (see p. 21).

Askar says that his regular beat could be considered “values in the media” but that he and other members of his team are required to write three “roundup” stories a week.

“I admit that writing roundups isn’t anybody’s idea of glamorous journalism,” Askar writes via e-mail. “But at the same time, I also think the people who criticize our use of roundups are naive or pretentious or both because, in the current media landscape where newspapers are dying all the time, the only strategy that ought to be off-limits for experimentation by news organizations is out-and-out plagiarism.”

But quantity isn’t quite king. As Gilbert touted at the University of Utah forum, Deseret News reporter Sara Israelsen-Hartley was honored as the 2010 best reporter in the state among large newspapers by the Utah Society of Professional Journalists. “She did it covering stories on faith and family,” Gilbert said. “Those stories resonate in this audience.”

The Deseret Media Company family fared well for its 2010 reporting, with KSL clearing 13 first-place awards. KSL reporter John Daley and Deseret News reporter Lisa Riley Roche claimed the state’s top investigative prize on a joint reporting project on donations to Gov. Gary Herbert’s election campaign and his awarding of road-construction bids.

But not everyone’s impressed with the combined newsroom. Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, recalls talking with a politics reporter for the Deseret News whom he considers to be one of the top reporters in the state and with whom he’d established a working relationship. The notes from his conversation were passed on to a KSL TV reporter, whom Hughes did not trust at all.

Hughes says that Deseret News/KSL model thwarts relationships of trust built between news reporters and newsmakers such as himself. If a source can’t feel certain that his information will be used by a trusted reporter, the source won’t provide the information, Hughes says.

“Let’s say you’re talking to Deep Throat—could you open-source that?” Hughes asks. “It’s just not what journalism has looked like, and I challenge that model.”

But with the Deseret News trumpeting values reporting to a global audience, and with KSL covering breaking and investigative local news, Gilbert has argued that the news mega-center has all its bases covered. But it also depends on the help of Deseret Connect, a contributor mill that pays on average as little as $2 to $30 for assigned stories, written mostly by nonprofessional reporters, and publishes them through the company’s media affiliates.

More than a year before the Winder fiasco, X says traditional journalists at the mega newsroom asked management how Deseret Connect could prevent people with an agenda from exploiting the company as their personal soapbox.

“They said they had it all under control,” X says.

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