Ogden Standard-Examiner investigative reporter Don Baker was concerned about the future of journalism when he spoke to Brigham Young University students in 1988.
The journalistic business climate both in Salt Lake City and in other cities around the state, Baker said, contributed to a monopoly or oligopoly dilemma that inhibited competition, employment, salaries and in-depth reporting.
Baker, whose name has since become identified with hard-hitting in-depth reporting, also charged:
– Utah’s open records laws were among the worst in the nation.
– There were few investigative reporters in Utah.
– Most of the news holes were devoted to excessive entertainment and sports.
Saddest of all, Baker said, was the fact that Utah citizens were being short-changed by media neglect of hard news, too much “soft news” and a shortage of reporters and editors.
In a hard-hitting speech reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, Baker characterized Utah journalists as enhancing a “Milquetoast media” with reporters so used or intimidated by the outside of the community corporate power structure, and out of touch with their audiences, that they defaulted in both their professional and social responsibility as watchdogs or a Fourth Estate.
Instead of aggressive stories written by their own reporters, the major dailies depended on wire service stories, canned syndicated material, sports and other soft news. The publisher’s rationalization is that “we’re only giving the public what they want” instead of what the community might need.
As a consequence of Utah’s pusillanimous press, the former BYU student and prize-winning reporter who worked for newspapers in both Ogden and Salt Lake before his death, said that media managers needed to import journalists from out of state.
As outsiders, independent from the strong cultural and economic influences, Baker said the outside reporters might do a better job of reporting and providing informed editorial opinion protected by the First Amendment.
Is The Situation Better Today?
If he were alive today, Baker might still be concerned at the state of Utah and national journalistic content and standards in the 14 years since his strident wake-up call.
Others including consultant and former investigative reporter Lynn Packer and David Magelby have made similar charges. Magelby, a political scientist and dean of BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, believes Utah’s “lazy press” is a factor contributing to corruption in the state.
Packer has charged that Utah’s lack of hard-hitting, in-depth reporting enhances the state’s reputation as “the fraud capital of the world.” In a speech at BYU reported in the Utah County Journal, Packer said the lack of an aggressive press corps helped permit the Winter Olympic bidding payoffs to remain undetected. The scandal did not break, Packer said, until the names of two “scapegoats” were leaked to a Salt Lake broadcast reporter to divert attention from a more extensive, in-depth examination.
Although Olympic coverage may have been a public relations dream, Packer charged, the poor coverage and conflicts of interest symbolized in reporters and even a publisher carrying a Olympic’s torch as part of an orchestrated public relations event, helped contribute to a journalistic nightmare.
Rather than seeing an upgrade in the media climate and quality of journalism in Utah, a two-month long study and efforts to quantify the absence of in-depth reporting of Utah’s six dailies suggests the following:
– The intense corporate, chain newspaper, bottom-line business climate inhibiting investigative reporting and true media competition has become worse, with in- depth reporting still not a priority even as circulation and advertising costs rise.
– Two of the former locally-owned newspapers – The Ogden-Standard Examiner and The Provo Daily Herald have been purchased by outside groups.
– In addition to being owned by an outside company, The Daily Herald has created its own chain by purchasing former family owned newspapers in the area. T including the Orem Geneva Times, the American Fork Citizen, the Lehi Free Press, The Pleasant Grove Review and Spanish Fork Press.
According to Spanish Fork city councilman Sherman E. Huff the community newspaper is not the same anymore.
“The very nature of the hometown newspaper is changing,” Huff said. “The hometown newspaper that used to exist, in my opinion does not exist in Spanish Fork. Much of the information is simply an extension of The Daily Herald.”
– The Ogden and Provo papers join St. George’s The Spectrum, Logan Herald-Examiner and The Salt Lake Tribune, also owned by newspaper groups. Only the Deseret News is locally owned.
– The Salt Lake Tribune is involved in a legal battle to halt the new ownership of its publication that Tribune family owners sold their paper to AT&T. Because of current litigation, ll but one of its owners and staff would speak with student reporters for this series.
– The Deseret News has already begun measures to become a morning publication and merge its newsroom with KSL-Television. Competitors charge that such combinations by a single owner violate the spirit and intent of anti-trust legislation and federal communications law that has existed since 1927. (The current deviation to allow the newspaper and TV station to be owned by one company is allowed because the regulations limiting ownership were passed after the News-KSL merger)
– There is evidence of an increasing number of “news” stories determined by advertisers and public relations representatives in all six dailies.
– Evidence in the Utah newspapers confirms national trends showing that between one and two thirds of the content of the news hole comes from outside the newspaper in press releases written by special interest economic and political advocates.
– In some cases papers, a staff byline is affixed to the advertising or public relations copy, raising questions of ethical and professional standards for readers who believe the copy is being written by an internal and objective staff.
– There is little in-depth reporting in a state that where entertainment, sports and wire service accounts constitute the bulk of content.
– Not all publishers and reporters are concerned about the lack of in-depth reporting, believing they are just giving their readers what they want.
Honors for Utah Papers
Despite absence of in-depth reporting great emphasis is placed on it as an ideal. There is considerable competition for awards from the Utah-Idaho and-Spokane Associated Press and Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists awarded each June.
This year the Deseret News received 20 and The Salt Lake Tribune 17 awards from the Utah-Idaho group. The Deseret News also humbled its bigger rival in the SPJ contest with 41 compared to 27 awards for The Tribune in the struggle among the bigger newspapers.
Provo and Logan newspapers each had eight awards in the SPJ contest, while the Provo paper added another eight in the Idaho-Utah competition. The Standard-Examiner, which did not compete in the SPJ canvass, won five in the Idaho-Utah contest.
The Gannett-owned (St. George) Spectrum was not listed as having won any awards in either the SPJ or Utah-Idaho competition. However, The Park City Record, Catalyst and Salt Lake Weekly were also named as winners with the dailies..
What this may mean for the consumer and for journalism
Although comparisons of newspapers and their awards are only one criteria to determine journalistic courage and excellence, political scientists, sociologists and communication department faculty see the prizes for in-depth reporting as one indicator that newspapers are carrying out their primary social roles of news, informed opinion and transmission of cultural values rather than emphasizing entertainment and advertising.
For some BYU journalism students, a “Milequetoast” test based on a 1-10 scale can be used to demonstrate that the average score of Utah’s six dailies consistently falls below the half way mark of 5.
What this means is that the bulk of the news is generated by advertisers, public relations, syndicates and the wire services, part time staffers and columnists. There is a maximum of soft news such as sports,. However, as emphasized by Baker, and confirmed in the study based on three issues, there is a minimum of in-depth news.
Ironically, the top investigative award is named after Baker who was generally critical of the Utah press for its lack of in-depth reporting.
Studies by social scientists suggest that lack of in-depth reporting contributes to a lack of awareness by citizens, a knowledge gap, ignorance, voter apathy, lack of trust and credibility, and failure to understand the world and even minorities in the community as those in power determine the agenda according to their narrow wants based on advertising, rather than community needs.
Educators ask what happens to a state and culture when most of the “news” copy focuses on entertainment, sports and cheap news provided by the wire services, syndicates, columnists and public relations representatives or advertising.
They express concern that a steady diet of “Milequetoast” or bland news, no matter how appealing it may be to a mass audience is not always in the best interest of the collective public even if the out-of-town owners who control the paper are making excessive profits at the expense of their readers.
A track record of journalistic neglect in Utah
In addition to the long-delayed disclosures about the Olympic bidding irregularities allowed to breed and gestate, Utah’s Milquetoast press has a history of neglect as seen in the following examples.
– The Trident Center scam of Asnam Khassogi
– The preying and bombing activities of forger Mark Hoffman,
– The O-ring failures contributing to the Challenger Shuttle explosion
— Scientists at the University of Utah who were able to pull off a successful cold fusion hoax.
Many of the stories taking place in Utah’s backyard were discovered or broken by outside sources or in the case of the Olympic bidding scandal, by special interests involved who leaked the information in order to ensure their own special spin.
An example of dependence on outside sources be seen under the front page headline “Anthrax probe widens” on the front page of the Deseret News, May 21. Lest readers be led to believe that the Utah paper is on top of the story, another smaller headline notes that “ABC says lie detector tests are set for Dugway.”
Little local follow up was provided by the local paper on the national network story quoting unnamed sources. A spokesman for the Dugway Proving Ground was unable to release details, but the deputy commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety said the ABC report came as “no surprise.”
The Milquetoast dilemma demonstrated in coverage by outside sources even when sources are anonymous or no coverage at all is not exclusive to the afternoon paper alone but characteristic of the other papers particularly those that are owned by out of state owners.
The hands-off approach to writing about tough economic and cultural issues seems to be an accepted part of life, as noted by Baker and others.
Such a strategy is evident even with life and death issues as is seen in the non coverage of the Atomic Energy Commission and other federal officials when radiation from Nevada blew downwind into Utah in the 1950s.
As noted by the Deseret News in records pried lose from the government in the 1970s, government officials were aware of the dangers to animals and humans from the radiation but did not disclose the dangers
Although the News is to be commended for its efforts reporting the issue 20 years after the fact, the concern for hundreds of families who lost loved ones, is where was Utah’s press when its population really needed a watchdog?
The Milquetoast problems can also be attributed, in part, to the low salaries paid by Utah’s group-owned newspapers as well as the fact that there are no newspaper guilds or unions to protect the reporters and serve as watchdogs.
Some of the outside chains decline to return to the communities that support them in advertising, a fair share for news coverage.
Utah’s open records law, despite improvements, by a citizen’s committee that included Don Baker, is still among the weakest in the nation.
Below Average Per Capita Readership
Some evidence of the lack of confidence and trust in Utah’s media can be seen in the fact that the year 2000 per capita daily readership of 330, 000 for Utah’s six daily newspapers is below the national average.
Despite the fact that Utah has one of the most highly educated populations in the United States, census data confirm that Utah’s per capita readership of .15 is below the national average of .20. Only four states: Maryland (12) Georgia (13) Mississippi and Texas (14) are lower than Utah in per capita readership. Five other states: Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, Nevada and Tennessee are tied with Utah for below average newspaper readership honors
On the other hand, Utah contrasts with the leading states of District of Columbia 1.51; Virginia (38), Colorado (29); North Dakota (26); Pennsylvania (22) in per capita readership.
Such statistics, data and comparisons as well as interviews with owners, reporters and readers have been gathered by advanced reporting students at BYU as part of class project which attempts to quantify both the failings and successes of Utah’s press.
Despite bright spots seen in the annual awards that the newspapers provide each other, there is still an absence of the reporting the Utah press awards itself. The findings based on limited samples suggest that there are areas of excellence in the Utah dailies for which they are to be commended. But there is still along way to go.
Although not included in this series, the study hinted that some of Utah’s weekly newspapers and its alternative press and magazines are currently carrying out an important role in reducing the daily Milquetoast diet of Utah dailies. Future studies are needed tol examine their content in an effort to further quantify the strengths and weaknesses of the Utah media in the tradition of Don Baker and other in-depth reporters.
What follows for the next six days are a discussion of the Utah’s six daily newspapers from the smallest to the largest. Weekday and Sunday circulations of the newspapers are in parentheses followed by the names of the student authors.
– The Herald Journal (Logan) (15,012; 15,490) – Jonathan Wardle
– The Spectrum (St. George) (20,292; 21,498) – Jonathan Madsen
– The Daily Herald (Provo) – (29,357, 31,652)- Elise Christenson
– Standard-Examiner (Ogden) (62,690, 66,873) – Sarah R. Mitchell
– The Deseret News (Salt Lake City) (64,707, 69,506 )- Lindsay M. Dickson
– The Salt Lake Tribune – (130,018, 162,583) – Debra J. Workman