Accessible scandal coverage in Utah

The Salt Lake Tribune continues to lead on the evolving Utah attorney general scandal--with help from some simple web tools

PROVO, UT — For several months now, a political scandal has been brewing here involving Utah Attorney General John Swallow, his predecessor, and a colorful and growing cast of characters.

Like many political scandals, this one has been relatively opaque and document-heavy. Thanks in part to the use of some fairly simple web-based bells and whistles, The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing coverage of the story stands out in this state. It’s a good reminder of how public service reporting can be enhanced by readily-available digital tools that require neither major expenditures nor New York Times-level wizardry.

On January 12, three days after Swallow was sworn into office, the Tribune’s Tom Harvey (courts reporter) and Robert Gehrke (politics reporter) reported that a Utah businessman—Jeremy Johnson, indicted for fraud—claimed that Swallow had “helped broker a deal in 2010 in which Johnson believed he was to pay Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid $600,000 to make a federal investigation into Johnson’s company go away.” Johnson’s allegations emerged, as the Tribune reported also on January 12, during a federal court hearing. In an email Q&A with the paper, published the same day as Johnson’s allegations, Swallow denied arranging the deal (Reid has denied any knowledge of it).

Along with the January 12 report of Johnson’s allegations, the Tribune used the document-sharing website Scribd to post online this email—allegedly from Swallow to Johnson, and supplied to the paper by Johnson in support of his allegations—with a subject line, “Mtg with Harry Reid’s contact.” As the Swallow saga snowballed this spring to include alleged campaign-law/personal disclosure violations, ethics violations, and eventually involving former AG Mark Shurtleff, the Trib has continued to use Scribd as a quick and easy way to share primary documents with readers.

On May 14, for example, the paper reported that “receipts show then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and his successor, John Swallow, got free meals, massages, golf outings and supplies at a gated Newport Beach villa, charging thousands of dollars of expenses to a man [Jeremy Johnson] the Attorney General’s Office had months earlier charged with six felonies and has put behind bars.” Along with the report, the Tribune, via Scribd, offered readers a “sample receipt” for a $170.74 golf outing, making the coverage a bit more immediate and accessible—and, maybe, more shareable.

And on May 19, using Google Hangouts, the Trib’s Gehrke and Harvey teamed up for a useful video chat/explainer of “the ethics controversy involving Utah Attorney General John Swallow and former A.G. Mark Shurtleff.” The paper also offered an interactive timeline to walk readers through this evolving scandal with so many names and claims.

Accompanying these admittedly simple bells and whistles has been the no-frills, shoe-leather reporting work—finding multiple sources, chasing down tips, studying court filings—of, as Tribune editor Nancy Conway put it in a January 19 column laying out how the initial story was reported and rolled out, “two of our best reporters” and an “editing team [that] numbered no fewer than five top editors.” The Trib team has continued to lead on this story all spring, with Gehrke’s and Harvey’s most recent reports on the scandal’s twists and turns appearing on May 23 and May 28, respectively.

There are many free, relatively user-friendly web tools out there—including those used by the Tribune— that reporters can draw on to enhance their storytelling. Here are a few to start with:

Scribd—A simple place to store and share documents

Google Hangouts—An easy way to record interviews with several people at once

Google Fusion Tables—Helps readers and viewers visualize data— Allows users to build interactive infographics

TimelineJS—A site for building timelines “that are easy and intuitive to use”—Allows users to build maps using data

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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell. Tags: , ,