West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder's deception tests a news industry in transition
SALT LAKE CITY — When West Valley City community reporter Richard Burwash sought to expand coverage of his community, he turned to local online and print media. The city's violent crime rate, twice the state average, was taking up too much news.
To give his cause some weight, Burwash set out writing positive pieces about the community. He wrote as a staff writer for the Oquirrh Times, a community publication that covers West Valley City. Photos he submitted were published in the Salt Lake Tribune. After that, he submitted pieces to Deseret Connect, a remote contributor and community content system, for the Deseret News and KSL.com. To do that, Burwash set up a Facebook account, registered an e-mail address, uploaded a profile photo and spoke repeatedly with a Deseret Connect editor about his portfolio of stories, sources and content provided to other Utah media.
The problem is that Richard Burwash doesn't exist. He was really the fictitious persona of West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder. Earlier this month Winder told the Deseret News that he created the Burwash identity to generate more positive stories about West Valley City. Winder said he also provided photos under the Burwash name to the Tribune, one of which they published with the "R. Burwash" byline and caption which had been used in an Oquirrh Times article.
On Nov. 15 Winder resigned from the The Summit Group, a Salt Lake City-based public relations firm, where he led the public affairs department.
Winder's deception of news organizations comes at a pivotal time in the industry as media companies nationwide are focused on reinventing broken business models and dwindling profits.
"Multiple processes in place at Deseret Connect were circumvented or violated and have resulted in the Mayor damaging his credibility," said Deseret News Chief Executive Officer Clark Gilbert after the company reviewed its policies and procedures. "Deception is a risk in all kinds of journalism, and Deseret Connect is no exception."
Deseret Connect's publicly posted policy, created in October 2010, requires all members to be transparent, forbidding pen names.
"The truth is, media companies have been hoaxed before and that was with all the traditional vetting processes in place," said Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School and former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. "The option isn't to eliminate community journalism but to determine the most effective ways to deploy it."
Seeking content from non-traditional journalists is nothing new for media companies. Traditional news brands like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal publish contributor-generated content on their various web properties like On Faith and AllThingsD.com.
New media brands like AOL use this kind of content in its Patch local media offering; Placeblogger uses it to deliver local news and accepts submitted content; and The Huffington Post, an online news site formed in May 2005, uses content from more than 9,000 contributors. AOL purchased the Huffington Post for $315 million this year.
Denver-based MediaNews Group Inc., which owns the Salt Lake Tribune, is trying a similar method of generating content for its 57 newspapers. Media News Chief Executive Officer John Paton said in a Nov. 13 New York Times interview that a third of his papers' content will come from user-generated stories.
"In Mr. Paton's version of newspapering, a third of the news will be expensive local content produced by professional journalists, a third will come from readers and community input, and a third will be aggregated," the Times said citing an interview with Paton.
"At some point, print is going to cost more money than it is worth," Paton told the Times. "If you don't have a viable business model to turn it off when that day comes, where does that leave you?"
Not all journalists share the same view, not even within MediaNews' organization.