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  • The New Orleans Times-Picayune did vital environmental reporting for decades

    Strong environmental journalism is key to informing citizens and holding polluters accountable

    Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Update (5/31/19): After publication of this article, Media Matters spoke with The New Orleans Advocate and learned that it has made job offers to The Times-Picayune's full three-person team of environmental journalists and those offers have been accepted. The Advocate also plans to bring over a grant-funded journalism fellow as part of a year-long environmental reporting project that was started at The Times-Picayune. These journalists, who are expected to begin their new jobs on July 2, will join the Advocate reporters who have been covering environmental issues as they intersect with other beats.

    "We are extremely excited to be expanding our environmental coverage," said New Orleans Advocate Managing Editor Martha Carr. "The Advocate has a strong record of environmental reporting in New Orleans and Louisiana. These reporters will add to what we can do to keep citizens informed."  


    The Times-Picayune, a 182-year-old newspaper published in New Orleans, has produced some of the most important environmental journalism in the country. But after a surprise purchase by the owners of The New Orleans Advocate and the Baton Rouge Advocate in early May, the entire staff of the Picayune was laid off. The buyers reportedly plan to merge The Times-Picayune with The New Orleans Advocate, but it's unclear how many of the 161 Picayune employees will be rehired to work on the new joint paper, which is expected to relaunch in July. Local environmental advocates are concerned that a degraded and depleted Picayune will have a much harder time informing the public about important environmental issues.

    The Times-Picayune has been a longtime publisher of award-winning environmental journalism

    For decades, The Times-Picayune has produced groundbreaking stories about how humans affect the environment in southern Louisiana and around the world. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for its “Oceans of Trouble” series, which examined threats to fish populations around the world.

    In 2006, the Picayune was awarded another Pulitzer, this time “for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant.” The paper's Katrina reporting was also built on critical work its journalists had done in previous years. In 2002, it published a prescient five-part series that revealed how woefully unprepared the region was for the full brunt of a major storm. The series included an ominous warning: “It's only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.”

    The Times-Picayune has twice earned the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, presented by the Columbia Journalism School. In 2001, it won for “Unwelcome Neighbors: Race, class and the environment,” a four-part series that examined environmental justice and the legacy of environmental racism in Louisiana. And in 2008, it was honored with an Oakes Award for a special report titled “Last Chance: The fight to save a disappearing coast.”

    The newspaper also received many other accolades over the years. For example, the Picayune's reporting on the BP oil spill earned first place for outstanding beat reporting in a small market from the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2011. In 2018, the paper partnered with The New York Times to produce a three-part series that investigated the ecological catastrophe occurring along Louisiana's disappearing coastline, and further reporting on the topic won the 2018 Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors award for continuing coverage.

    The Times-Picayune continued to produce innovative and informative environmental journalism even after suffering massive staff layoffs in 2012. But as in far too many other newsrooms across the country, good journalism would ultimately not be able to save the paper.

    Great journalism isn’t enough to stem the tide of newspaper dissolution and consolidation

    Notable achievements, high readership, and even profitability have so far proved unable to stem the growing tide of newsroom erosion and extinction all around the country.

    Picayune journalist Haley Correll, who found out that she lost her job while in New York to accept an award, illustrated this point in a tweet.

    The Wall Street Journal recently took a deep dive into the dire state of local newspapers. The article noted, “Nearly 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018, leaving 200 counties with no newspaper and roughly half the counties in the country with only one,” according to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina. The job losses have also been staggering: Between 1990 and 2016, newspaper positions in the U.S. declined by about 60%, falling from 465,000 jobs to 183,000.

    In a region highly vulnerable to climate threats, activists stress the need for strong environmental journalism

    Local environmental activists have expressed apprehension about what the Picayune’s sale portends for the future of journalism in a region that is highly vulnerable to climate change and plagued by environmental injustices like “Cancer Alley.” Dustin Renaud, a spokesperson for New Orleans-based conservation nonprofit Healthy Gulf, told Media Matters, "Environmental protection starts with informed citizens, and The Times-Picayune has been an invaluable source of information on issues like sea-level rise, land loss, increased severity of storms, and oil and gas development, which are all very real threats to Louisianians.”

    His unease is shared by Andy Kowalczyk of climate action group 350 New Orleans, who told Media Matters, “Unbiased reporting is increasingly important in Louisiana because there is an all-too-common and casual lack of transparency from regulators of polluting industries, and, of course, the industries themselves.” 

    They're right to be concerned. Research suggests that the loss of local newspapers can result in citizens who are less civically engaged and institutions that are less accountable, leading to more government and industry waste, fraud, and abuse. A recent study also found that newspaper coverage of polluting plants was correlated with lowered emissions from those plants.

    Without knowledgeable journalists who can tell compelling stories, a local paper will sometimes morph into a digital version plagued by junk advertisements and rife with stories that have little relevance to the community it serves.

    Renaud emphasized the importance of tenacious reporters: “We need dedicated environmental journalists to tell the stories that Healthy Gulf advocates for or else we risk important environmental news falling through the cracks.” Having experienced journalists on the job is particularly important for beats like environmental reporting that require a grasp of science, regulatory systems, politics, and local arcana.

    There is at least one bit of good news on this front: Poynter reported that the leaders of The New Orleans Advocate intend to hire some Picayune journalists on contract, and “the hires will draw on the strength of the Times-Picayune’s environmental reporting,” among other areas of expertise.

    Potential new models for local news

    The outlook for local news outlets around the country is bleak, but there are new models being pioneered that have the potential to help newspapers survive and even thrive in some cases.

    One example is Report for America, a project aimed at recruiting, training, and placing 1,000 reporters in local newsrooms by 2023. The organization splits the cost of a reporter’s salary with the local newsroom and an individual donor, university, family trust, or foundation. This year, Report for America placed 61 reporters in 50 local news organizations.

    Another project is focused specifically on the environmental beat. InsideClimate News’ National Environment Reporting Network is "hiring experienced reporters based in key regions of the nation to write stories, train local reporters, and collaborate with newsrooms to produce more in-depth environment reporting.” The network recently teamed up with 14 news outlets in the Midwest to produce a series of stories on local climate solutions.

    Public funding of news outlets is another model that is beginning to be tested in the U.S., as the Nieman Lab reports. In New Jersey last year, grassroots activists successfully pushed through the Civic Info Bill, which created a public fund to support journalism projects and other potential ways to inform state residents.

    In Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune recently announced that it is seeking to become a nonprofit. If successful, the paper would become the first “legacy U.S. daily to switch to nonprofit status,” according to a Tribune article. The effort will be a complicated process; to kick it off, the Tribune’s owner has petitioned the IRS to change the paper’s status “from a privately owned business to a community asset.”

    These are promising steps, but the ability of these models to support quality journalism is still in doubt -- as are the fates of many talented and experienced journalists who are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. But no matter which models ascend to fill the role historically played by local newspapers, one thing is certain: They should be guided by the consistently rigorous, revealing, and relevant reporting produced by local papers like The Times-Picayune.

  • Local outlets spotlight impact of Trump’s proposed funding cut for clinics that perform or refer for abortions

    ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT

    President Donald Trump recently announced a proposed rule change that would deny Title X federal family planning funding to those clinics, including Planned Parenthood, that perform or refer for abortions. In reporting from across the country, a number of local outlets highlighted the deleterious impact the proposed rule would have on their own communities, particularly for low-income individuals seeking family planning services.

  • Meet The Utah Columnist Shining A Light On Fossil Fuel Front Groups

    Blog ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    In recent decades, fossil fuel interests have been funding front groups to advance their ideological and political goals, and key to these groups’ success is concealing their industry backing. But Utah columnist Paul Rolly has been working to shine a light on the industry backing behind the most influential front groups in his state. In an interview with Media Matters, Rolly discussed the importance of following the money.

    Rolly has been a columnist at The Salt Lake Tribune for the last 20 years, and he has stood out because of his work exposing fossil fuel front groups operating in Utah. He has uncovered the oil industry fingerprints behind campaigns to seize public lands from the federal government, attack renewable energy, and promote an industry-friendly agenda in higher education.

    Why is it so important to Rolly to educate his readers about Big Oil’s involvement in these fights? “It’s our job,” he said, explaining that it’s vital that readers know “what the sources of bills are, where they’re coming from, who they benefit, who’s behind them, who’s making money, and who’s making campaign contributions.” He hopes this information will give his readers the ability to “make informed decisions when they vote.”

    Utah is ground zero for many of the fossil fuel industry’s campaigns, making Rolly’s work invaluable. One of the most prominent fossil fuel-backed campaigns in recent years has been the effort to transfer control of federal lands to state governments, which would greatly benefit fossil fuel interests, as states would likely open up more areas to oil and gas drilling and coal mining.

    State Rep. Ken Ivory (R-UT) has played a leading role in the public land grab movement in the west, and Rolly has been paying close attention. In 2012, Ivory co-founded a group called the American Lands Council (ALC), which aims to “secure local control of western public lands by transferring federal public lands to willing States.” Utah, Rolly explained, is the only state that has passed legislation setting aside taxpayer funds to sue the federal government over control of public lands, like those managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. The lawsuit was recommended by a legal team hired by a Republican-dominated commission of Utah legislators, even though the lawyers acknowledged that the lawsuit “could cost up to $14 million, take years to play out in the courts,” and is “far from a sure victory,” according to the Associated Press.

    Rolly has repeatedly pointed out that Ivory has taken a six-figure annual salary from the ALC, which is largely funded by counties in Western states. The ALC’s tax forms reportedly indicate that Ivory and his wife have pocketed almost half of the group’s total revenue. Rolly believes that the negative attention Ivory received over his salary at ALC may explain why he stepped down as the organization’s president in December. (He remains an unpaid member of its executive committee).

    Rolly has devoted several columns to exposing the fossil funding behind ALC and other groups that are engaged in the public lands campaign. He's pointed out that Federalism in Action, where Ivory currently heads the “Free the Lands” project, is affiliated with the oil billionaires Charles and David Koch. And he's documented that the firm hired by the Utah legislature to promote the land transfer agenda, Strata Policy, also has financial ties to the Koch brothers. As the Los Angeles Times has noted, ALC has also received financial support from Americans for Prosperity, which was co-founded by the Kochs and continues to spearhead their agenda.

    The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate front group that connects fossil fuel executives with legislators to push model bills that serve industry interests, is also highly influential in Utah and has a heavy hand in the public land grab movement. And, as Rolly told Media Matters, “the Koch brothers are a big deep-pocket force behind ALEC.” Ivory is an ALEC member and was even awarded the group’s “Legislator Of The Year” award in 2014.

    In addition to the public lands battle, Rolly has turned his attention to the Kochs’ influence in local universities. He said national stories about the Kochs' investments in higher education led him to examine their efforts at Utah State University, where Strata co-founder Randy Simmons was previously the Charles G. Koch professor of political economy and currently supervises a Koch-funded scholarship program. As Rolly reported: “The Kochs have extended influence to institutions of higher education, setting up grants at universities to hire professors that teach the Kochs' anti-tax, anti-regulation business and political philosophies to mold young minds to fall in step with the Kochs' industrial wishes going forward through the 21st Century.”

    Too often, media fail to disclose these important ties, Rolly noted. ALEC, for one, “probably doesn’t get the attention it should” in the national media, nor do its “ties to the Koch brothers, and their deep-pocket influence, and what happens to state legislatures.” Many valuable resources that provide context are “underused,” in Rolly’s opinion, including legislators’ conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure forms, which he examines to see if there’s any connection between “who’s giving them money” and “what they’re doing as a legislator.” He said he also examines the tax filings of nonprofits such as ALC.

    But he also noted the difficulties that newsrooms face as the journalism industry struggles financially, resulting in increased pressure and reduced resources. Newspapers have been shutting down all over the country, and the ones that remain have had to greatly cut down on staff (including the Salt Lake Tribune). When that happens, Rolly noted, “the first thing to suffer is investigative reporting” because it requires so much time and staff resources. He added: “The industry is in peril right now.”

    There are also structural difficulties that further complicate the task of investigative journalism, Rolly noted, such as Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that protects a corporation's right to make unlimited expenditures in support of political candidates as a form of speech. Because of that ruling, Rolly said, super PACs can “basically take over [political] campaigns” and “you have no idea who’s contributing the money.”

    It’s worth keeping in mind that even as newspapers are facing increased financial pressures, reporting like Rolly’s can be good for business. His columns are among the newspaper’s most viewed pieces online, he says. And he recently received the “Making Democracy Work” award from the League of Women Voters for his work at the Tribune.

    The need for the media to disclose the industry backing that’s behind fossil fuel front groups is clear. Dark money groups like DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund exist solely to hide these funds. And research shows that organizations funded by Exxon and the Koch brothers are “more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue." Yet Media Matters has shown time and time again that fossil fuel front groups are getting away with promoting anti-environmental agendas while hiding the real voices behind their misleading messages.

    In the words of the Tribune, Rolly told the League of Women Voters that “democracy best works when the public is informed.” Reporters would do well to follow Rolly’s example by digging a little deeper to uncover the dark money behind special interest campaigns occurring all around the country.

  • Inside The Fossil Fuel Industry's Media Strategy To Drill And Mine On Public Lands

    ››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

    A handful of fossil fuel industry front groups are engineering media campaigns aimed at persuading the public that the federal government should relinquish control of public lands to western states, claiming it would benefit the states economically. But evidence actually suggests that these land transfers would harm state economies, and the industry front groups are hiding their true motivation: opening up more public lands to oil drilling and coal mining while sidestepping federal environmental laws.

  • "Shoe leather [journalist]" O'Keefe's speaking gig at GOP fundraiser canceled following arrest

    Blog ››› ››› KARL FRISCH

    This is how James O'Keefe views the work he does:

    I focus on content more than labels. I happen to call what I do shoe leather journalism and not advocacy journalism. So, I would consider it just journalism.

    Well, who would have thought that "shoe leather journalism" included raising money for a political party? I guess that's "conservative journalism" for you.

    The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

    Salt Lake County Republicans are scrambling to line up a new keynote fundraising speaker after the arrest Tuesday of their scheduled first choice, filmmaker James O'Keefe, on charges of attempting to tamper with the phone system of a U.S. senator.

    "The allegations and arrest today certainly change our plans," county GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said in a telephone interview with The Tribune. "We'll be announcing a new speaker shortly."

    As of Tuesday night, the party's Web site, slcogop.com, still advertised O'Keefe as the guest speaker for the Feb. 4 Lincoln Day Dinner. His topic was to be "his national exposé of ACORN's unethical behavior, his changes in Congress and [how he will] inspire our Party's passion for a grassroots comeback."

    The fundraising announcement said donations of $4,000 to $7,500 would entitle contributing groups to have access to elected Republican officials and the guest speaker at a VIP reception. Wright said the Web site and other promotions would be altered soon to reflect a change.

    "We're disappointed," he said of O'Keefe's arrest on felony charges. "He doesn't necessarily represent the Republican Party."