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.
"We have no plans to initiate anything like that," Salt Lake Tribune Editor Nancy Conway said in a telephone interview yesterday. Conway joined the Tribune in 2003 after the paper fired two of its reporters for lying about their involvement with a retracted National Enquirer story surrounding the Elizabeth Smart abduction. Editor James E. Shelledy resigned after coming under fire for his handling of the ordeal.
"We don't use a lot of community journalism," Conway said. "I'm not saying we won't ever, but it's not part of our newsroom plan right now. Our intention is quite the opposite. We are looking to create a staff of experts to observe and analyze and put in to context information."
In January the Tribune invited community contributors to submit articles for its Closeup section. On Jan. 6, the Tribune said in an email that it was looking for "news from your neighborhood and schools, community centers and more. Tell our readers your observations of events and issues that impact others. Generally, if something interests you, it likely will interest others."
Conway said the paper "didn't have a good experience with that. It's hard to not only recruit and vet citizen journalists and to be sure of their veracity."
Conway said she hadn't yet read the Nov. 13 New York Times article on Paton and his views on community journalism. Paton became CEO of MediaNews, which owns the Salt Lake Tribune, in September. He replaced Dean Singleton who ran the company since 1983. In January 2010, MediaNews declared bankruptcy after print advertising plunged.
"I would remind you that Dean Singleton is the publisher of the paper," Conway said, adding that she didn't know how the new reporting structure would be. "Dean is the executive chairman of the board. In some ways you could say that Paton reports to the board."
Paton's office said he was traveling and unable to comment.
"Traditionalists will insist it's an either-or calculation," Gilbert said. "But in our opinion, you can — and really must — have a combination of both professional journalists and community contributors to be able to survive."
Winder's violations of Deseret Connect's policy open other questions about how citizen journalism efforts can provide the editorial oversight, rigor and transparency necessary to enhance trust in media brands.
"The economics of news gathering require innovative approaches such as Deseret Connect to complement and maintain the traditional newsroom," Gilbert said. "We believe it's wise to perfect these new models, which enable us to invest in producing traditional, in-depth investigative reporting in areas other media have abandoned."
Deception in journalism has a long history, from Jayson Blair at the New York Times to Stephen Glass at the New Republic, to recent events at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. In the digital age, the risks are changing and increasing.
"We have put in place what should have been reasonable policies and processes to limit a case such as Mayor Winder, but those who are intent to deceive in this digital age find new means," said Matt Sanders, director of Deseret Connect. "Our tools and procedures must be even more rigorous, and Deseret Connect is adding new protections.
Many Deseret Connect contributors have deep expertise from their professions and offer insightful, unique stories, Sanders said. Some contributors include leadership consultant Tim Clark, best-selling author Jeff Benedict, business scholar Wendy Ulrich and NBC Philadelphia sports director Vai Sikahema.
"We also have scores of other talented contributors who have a passion for writing and are experts in their subjects, providing valuable stories and insight ranging from high school sports to cooking to financial planning," Sanders said. There are many areas where stories from contributors clearly resonate with our readers."
When contributors submit articles to Deseret Connect, a team of editors reviews them and provides feedback, Sanders said. Some topics receive additional fact checking.
"We give our community a voice," said Gilbert, who also serves on the Newspaper Association of America board. "The evolving media landscape will continue to require innovation. We remain deeply committed to our full-time professional journalists. They do amazing, award-winning work. But we will complement that work with community contributors in areas our audience care about and want to engage in. The way forward is to embrace and improve upon this new model, which we will continue to do."
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