Journalism Professor Responds To Staff Cuts At Tribune and Ogden Standard-Examiner

May 16, 2018

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Major cuts in news room jobs at both the Ogden Standard-Examiner last week and Salt Lake Tribune on Monday have prompted many conversations about the future of Utah journalism.

UPR’s Matilyn Mortensen visited with Matthew LaPlante, an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University and former Tribune reporter, to ask him about the impacts these cuts may have on local reporting moving forward and how he hopes the public reacts to the situation.

LaPlante: I would like to say that this is unexpected or that it came as a great surprise but it really doesn’t. It’s still a gut punch but we have been through this time and time again. We’ve seen it in nearly every newspaper newsroom in the country to some extent and in a lot of newsrooms to a really great extent.

While the situation in particular with the Tribune comes as something as a shock given the recent ownership change and that commit that that new ownership has made publicly to sustaining the Tribune as a public voice in Utah. The experience of watching journalist lose their jobs, that is not a new experience. It is sadly the status quo. 

Mortensen: What do these kinds of events mean for journalism in the state moving forward?

LaPlante: What it means is there are fewer professional journalists keeping watch on things we have relied on journalists, sometimes not even realizing we’re relying on journalists, to keep watch on. The democracies we have now are informed and kept in some degree of check, and it's a debatable degree of check, but I think one would agree that there is some degree of check. The fourth estate plays on our government, and the fewer professional journalists we have doing their jobs, the less that balance is maintained. Now what that means going forward is still unclear.

Mortensen: So, something that the Tribune is very well known for covering is the sexual assault cases that were happening on college campuses. So well known for covering it that they did win a Pulitzer for that kind of work. If this layoff had happened a few years ago, do you think that that kind of project would have been possible? 

LaPlante: Without taking away from anything that the Tribune did, which was absolutely stellar journalistic work, I’m going to put on my optimistic face right now and I’m going to say yes. I do believe that there are increasing numbers of models for that work. It wouldn’t have happened in that same way; it would not have happened with the speed that it happened. But, people were beginning to have these conversations across the state and on college campuses more and more victims were beginning to come forward.

We live in an increasingly interconnected world. Social media is playing a bigger and bigger role in sharing the stories in our lives and uncovering the hard truths of the hard way that we live and the interactions between ourselves and the institutions of power.

I believe that the truth wants to be told. I believe that stories are like water. We take the path of least resistance, and for a very long time, that path of least resistance in many communities across the country has been newspapers. But, I don’t think that is the exclusive way that stories are told.

Mortensen: Something that you mentioned as you explained those things is you talked a little bit about change and that how stories are being told is different, and about how that has been evolving. In a situation like this we’ve seen a lot of the reporters and a lot of people, ya' know, call to action on social media. We need to support local journalism. We need to keep that here. So, we’re talking about keeping the local journalism here is it necessarily keeping those same platforms, or is it going to have to take into account that evolution to be successful?

LaPlante:  I think what we need to have, and it’s a long time coming, is a community conversation about what we want our professional journalists to be doing. And, I think we’ve even conceded that the can no longer tell all of the stories. Let’s not pretend also that they ever did.

Traditional media, the mainstream media, have largely told the stories of people in power. That’s problematic. We’re seeing a shift away from that in the social media world. Everyone can tell their own story and be amplified by people who value those voices. I would guess that most people would tell you that there is still a place, and an important place, for professional journalists to tell stories. The question is what stories do we want them telling?

Mortensen: So, talking about those changes, and that community conversation, what are kind of your hopes for journalism in the state moving forward? Maybe with what the community does and also with what happens with these organizations?

LaPlante: My hope, my expectation as a matter of fact, in terms of these newspapers that are still doing really good work in the states, they’re going to continue to do that. They’re going to do less of it. You can’t cut a third of your staff at the Salt Lake Tribune, you can’t cut a fifth of your staff at the Ogden Standard Examiner, you can’t have this gradual whittling down of these newspaper staff that we’ve seen at pretty much every news organization at the state, and keep expecting the same amount of coverage and the same quality of coverage. You just can’t. It’s clear. But, the Salt Lake Tribune’s not going away any time soon.

One of the really remarkable things that I saw in the wake of these layoffs is both the people who were cut and the people who remained in that newsroom saying “our work is still is still important.” And they are still important. There is still good work that is going to be done I expect, and it is still going to be done in those newsrooms.

What I would love to see on the part of our community is we recognize the realities of this disruption. It is acceptance of a civic responsibility to tell our own stories, to tell them in a way that is fair, to tell them in a way that is honest, to tell them in a way that is transparent as to our own biases and agendas. If we do so and we create the civic virtue of storytelling, I think the pain is not so great.