Even with a new owner, the iconic daily is in a fight for its life.
Utah wonders what could replace it.
By Glen Warchol | Photos by Adam Finkle
Steve Milner had just finished filming a house fire in Midvale and was back in his Jeep, “drifting” northward toward Salt Lake City, half-listening to his police scanners. He noticed the tone of the voices change almost imperceptibly.
Milner, chief photographer at Gephardt Daily, formerly a veteran overnight photographer at KTVX and KSL—where he was nicknamed ‘Nighthawk’— knew instinctively that something was up. “To be a photojournalist in this market, you have to have great scanner skills,” he says. “I noticed everyone on the scanner had an elevated tenor to their voices. You can tell something serious is going on. No one in law enforcement is so professional that they can cloister the humanity from their voice.”
An officer had called in a 10-33: Need immediate assistance! Everyone listening, including Milner, knew lives were in the balance. “That started a whole chain-reaction response from all over the valley.” Milner would soon learn that a Salt Lake police officer had shot a teenager near the Rio Grande station downtown.
“I know the terrain—I know the streets and I approached from the south and I was instantly at the scene,” Milner says. He parked his car near the Rio Grande Station and grabbed his camera. “Out of force of habit, I was situationally aware because I was in the middle of a crazy event. And this was an area that has crazy people walking around. I engaged the story and I started shooting like crazy.”
In a few minutes, 100 police and other first responders would converge on the scene. “It was an ocean of red, blue and white lights. It looked amazing,” Milner says. As he worked his way up 500 West, he switched between video and still photography. He came upon a woman and a small boy looking toward a body surrounded by medics. “I was rolling on them. It was family members. They were in a panic. The boy kept saying, ‘I think he’s dead.’”
Milner also realized that he was the first photographer on the scene. “I was overjoyed with excitement, because I knew I was getting the story and no one else was. You can’t go the extra mile if you aren’t competitive.”
Over the next 24 hours, the public would learn that police gunfire had critically wounded 17-year-old Abdi Mohamed, who would remain in a coma for days. The shooting would become the focus of controversy, an ongoing investigation and one of the biggest news stories of the year.
And Milner, an old-school photographer working for a new model of journalism, knew he had it first.
Many news consumers might consider Milner and the rest of Gephardt Daily’s staff—which is on call 24/7 to cover spot news, including fires, shootings, truck rollovers and other misery—ghoulish. And there is, indeed, something vulture-like in lazily circling the city with a pair of crackling scanners, waiting for something bad to happen. But it also might be exactly what is necessary for a news operation to survive in a media ecosystem disrupted by the Internet.
Trib Dodges a Bullet
The difficulty of the struggle is exemplified by The Salt Lake Tribune which, like daily newspapers across the nation, has been in steep decline for several years. Last month, the Trib’s situation took a turn for the better when it was purchased by Paul Huntsman. The deal included an increased share of profit from partner the LDS Church-owned Deseret News. The Trib-killing 30 percent share was hiked to 40 percent. Still, its survival is by no means secure. Still in question is the Trib’s role as a left-of-center voice, independent of the LDS Church—the Huntsmans are devout Mormons and possibly even more devout Republican businessmen and politicians who have clashed with the paper in the past. The Huntsmans say they’ll stay out of the newsroom—but journalists have heard that before.
Trib Editor Terry Orme is optimistic. “They want to preserve the Trib’s role,” he says. “I’m sure they’ll put their stamp on the editorial page. My hunch is that it will be a more moderate change than most people fear.”
Nevertheless, as Utahns watch the Trib’s circulation drop, see its news pages cut, its staff laid off—while the paper’s online product still fails to replace lost revenues—they wonder what could supplant the long-respected news source. Since the beginning of the Web, we’ve been told corporate news sources would be unnecessary because everybody would be a publisher, adding to a spectrum of information and viewpoints. And all free.
It hasn’t happened. In fact, beyond a mind-numbing tsunami of information and opinion, the Internet has polarized America, with citizens flocking to news sources that provide only their viewpoint and block any dissonant voices. “Everybody’s in a self-segregated echo chamber,” says Brian Schott, managing editor at Utah Policy, a political-analysis website. “People gravitate towards media that reinforce their biases.”
Glen Feighery, associate chair of the University of Utah’s Department of Communications and a former daily editor and reporter, says so-called legacy news sources, for all their warts, served a curating purpose. “People are having to find news on their own because this tidy top-down package isn’t delivered to your driveway at 6 a.m. anymore,” he says. “You paid a nominal price and you got a great information package every day. But that business model has failed.”
The question is, what will replace the serious journalism of the Trib as it lumbers toward the tar pit?
Plans of Mice and Citizens
Matt LaPlante, an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University and a veteran reporter, left the Trib enthusiastic about the possibilities of the Internet. He explored so-called citizen journalism, the ultimate grassroots news reporting in which everyday folks use their common sense and native intelligence to keep an eye on local government and dig out stories. In one of his first forays, LaPlante gave a presentation at a senior-citizen center, thinking retirees would have great potential as investigative reporters. They could bring life savvy and career experience to bear—and, obviously, they have time on their hands.
Like so many Internet promises, it failed. “I had never developed a good understanding of what a community senior center is before walking into one to do a presentation on citizen journalism,” LaPlante recalls. “The level of challenges most of them were facing would be prohibitive of doing anything that resembled journalism.” Still, he thinks citizen journalism will have a place in the new news world.
Lara Jones, manager of community content at public radio KRCL, says the station encourages citizen-journalism projects, but it isn’t the answer to public-interest coverage because most citizens are not experienced in journalism ethics and practices. “You get what you get when you do citizen journalism,” she says. “Expanding non-music programming is hard when you look at what it costs for forensic journalism. What costs most is [professional] journalists.”
John Saltas, publisher of City Weekly, sums it up: “If you want to know how well citizen journalism works, read the comments on SLTrib.com.”
Nationwide, groups have turned to non-profit models, eliminating the need to sell advertising and subscriptions. But to work effectively, a non-profit needs a large and long-term funding source [think: public radio]. The best example nationally is ProPublica, which describes itself as “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” ProPublica is supported by a $10 million a year donation from two financial executives. So far, a “ProPublica—SLC” is only a fantasy.
Feighery says projects by non-profits such as KUER, KUED and KCPW fill some blanks with documentaries and discussions on air pollution, alcohol control, wilderness and other issues. “But what’s in between? What are we missing?” Feighery asks. “What does it add up to?”
In particular, the watchdog role daily papers traditionally provided is seldom thrilling nor does it rise to the moral crescendo of the film Spotlight. “It’s slow, thankless work,” says Feighery. “You have to knock on people’s doors and you have to sit in those awful meetings—those suburban city meetings and legislative subcommittees.”
Another possible route to sustaining journalism is collaboration between news entities. So far, mostly half-hearted or underfunded models have emerged. A bright spot is Behind the Headlines, a weekly gathering of Trib reporters on KCPW radio to analyze the news; observers say it is the Trib’s only successful foray into cross media.
KSL-TV and the Deseret News, of course, offered the most fully realized response to the disruption of journalism when they combined as Deseret Digital Media. Despite its managers’ business savvy and innovation, Deseret Digital’s credibility as a watchdog is undercut because it’s owned and operated by the LDS church—the state’s most powerful economic, political and social entity.
Acts of Random Journalism
One moderately successful and, by Web standards, long-lived public affairs website is Utah Policy—it offers public-affairs content provided by former journalists, Bryan Schott (news radio) and Bob Bernick (former Deseret News politics editor). Utah Policy is rich with opinion, analysis and polls. It has a loyal following of lawyers, lobbyists, office holders and political junkies. (Though Utah Policy was started by LaVarr Webb who also co-found Exoro Group, Schott explains Utah Policy has no connection to Exoro.)
“The whole key to success on the Internet is understanding your audience,” Schott says. “We are very niche. We write for a specific group.” Still, he says, Utah Policy is anything but a cash cow. “It’s very hard to strike out on your own. It’s a survival game every day. We can pay our bills while we carry out acts of journalism.” But Schott has no pretensions that startups like Utah Policy can fill the gaps in watchdog and public-interest coverage left by the Trib. “If people expect us to fill that void—it’s not what we do. We
just don’t have the manpower or the funding.”
Social Media’s Fail
From toppling Middle East governments to a Salt Lake cop shooting a dog, social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, have been key in on-the-ground reporting and generally raising a ruckus to drive news coverage. “It’s powerful in getting the word out in a situation like the controversy over the rape victims at BYU,” LaPlante says. “Social media can mobilize people at a moment’s notice.”
But, he says. “It isn’t great for doing things such as being a watchdog on UTA—that’s where social media fails.”
A New Daily
Bill Gephardt is one of Utah’s best known journalists. For years, he was the hero of KUTV’s “Get Gephardt!” chasing down businesses that had taken advantage of or failed to fulfill promises to consumers. Problem with the contractor who did your kitchen or the mechanic who did a brake job? Get Gephardt! Gephardt had a TV presence that made him a personality—a bona-fide brand. Fighting for consumers against arrogant vendors and rip-off artists won him credibility that ran deep with a broad audience.
After he retired in 2010, Gephardt soon tired of golfing, he says. A news junkie himself, he got an urge to put together a full-fledged online newsroom. First, he had to come up with serious seed money to launch his project. Though he was offered six-figure jobs as a spokesman for Utah corporations, he feared that would conflict with his journalism project. “I considered opening a Popeye’s fried chicken franchise to raise the money,” Gephardt says. “I actually did! But I don’t know anything about selling fast food.”
His solution was to start Gephardt Approved, a service business anchored in his brand as a consumer watchdog. Gephardt emphasizes that businesses have higher hurdles than a monthly check to be rated Gephardt Approved. “I turn down 20 percent of the companies who apply. They must answer every complaint that comes to me,” he says. And he offers a $1,000 guarantee to any business that doesn’t deliver on a contract. At a few hundred dollars a month for the approval rating, no one company can hold him hostage, he says. “I’m not dependent on one company—they can’t influence me. Gephardt Approved supplied the seed money for Gephardt Daily—but the news service runs on its own,” he says. His news director and reporters say that neither the business side nor Gephardt himself have ever attempted to influence a story.
Gephardt does acknowledge that having his brand on both companies could give an appearance of conflict—but there isn’t much he can do about that. “We adopted the highest principles of journalism,” he says. “We’re a 24-hour independent news show. We have a chance to re-invent the wheel here. We’re trying to fuse journalism discipline into a new delivery form.”
The newspaper is no longer being subsidized by Gephardt Approved, he says, but is moving toward making it on Web advertising.
Gephardt says they have already surpassed their long-term goals, including 300,000 readers, which seems to surprise even him. “We were not supposed to be here for three to five years. We’re doing OK.”
Even more surprising is Gephardt Daily is doing it with pro (with benefits) journalists. “You actually have to pay people,” Gephardt says. “Imagine that.”
News Director Patrick Benedict, who has years of experience in television news, says he has 10 full-time workers and 15 freelancers. He has no qualms about the Gephardt branding. “Bill’s brand has been built one night at a time as the champion of the little guy.” Though Gephardt Daily is an online news service with a website and app (gephardtdaily.com), Benedict has reached back to a venerable model of reporting (including a competitiveness right out of The Front Page.) “We’re having a lot of fun,” Benedict says of Gephardt and himself. “My expertise is spot news—when news happens, we break it.”
“We’re a total news service,” Gephardt says. “It’s not some opinion site where we’re going off on what’s reported somewhere else. We see ourselves as replacing television and newspapers to the extent they are failing.”
Benedict’s staff of “multi-media journalists” rotates being on call around the clock. “Between us all, we catch most of the news out there,” says Content Manager Daisy Blake. “When something like the shooting [at the shelter] happens—it’s all hands on deck.” Gephardt says that as Gephardt Daily establishes itself financially, he plans to move beyond hyper-local coverage to more long-form projects and even investigative journalism. “That’s real journalism—not house fires and traffic accidents,” he says.
Blake is impressed by her bosses: “They put in the manpower to make things happen.”
But LaPlante has doubts whether Gehardt’s upstart will make it financially. “I would like nothing more than for it to succeed,” he says. “But let’s look at it again three years down the road.”
Gephardt is serene. “We are not going away. Not even if I’m hit by a bus.”
No Solution in Sight
No one, including Trib managers, seems to have figured out a long-term solution to profitable Web journalism. One hope is that a continually morphing patchwork of news sources, including non-profit investigative units, media cooperatives, expanded public broadcasting, weekly journals and citizen journalists, will coalesce and fill any gaps left by the Trib. And, it is hoped, advertisers finally will begin to pay enough for online advertising to cover the cost of reporting. “Whatever happens,” says Feighery, “it’s going to be messy.”
LaPlante surmises that online journalism might follow the model of volunteer fire departments. “Volunteer firefighters aren’t paid, but that doesn’t mean we’re all going to die in a fire,” he says, because they are dedicated and highly trained.
While volunteer reporters racing to news events seems a stretch, he argues Web journalism, now a Wild West of fact, rumor and innuendo, will evolve. “We have just started to build the civic ethics needed to be a decent human being online.” Until then, LaPlante says, “It’s not going to be pretty. It’s never going to be perfect.”
Glen Warchol previously worked for The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News.