If the 1957 movie “Sweet Smell of Success” were made today, the central figure might not be the tyrannical, sadistic newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), but his foil, the sycophantic, scheming press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). Today, Falco would not have to crawl up to Hunsecker’s throne at “21” and say pretty please to get an item in his column. At least not in metro Denver.
Instead Falco could click onto YourHub.com, the site that covers 44 local communities and is run by the Rocky Mountain News. Falco would upload his release and — zip! — watch it materialize in its entirety on all the community sites, if he hit enough keys on his computer. No editorial gatekeeper would stand in his way, much less a J.J. Hunsecker.
On Feb. 27, YourHub ran a piece of stage-center product placement that Sidney Falco could only dream about. It was headlined, “Wynkoop names 2006 beerdrinker of the year.” It opened: “Tom Schmidlin, a 36-year-old University of Washington graduate student, devout homebrewer and yeast enthusiast, won the 2006 Beerdrinker of the Year title in Denver on Saturday, Feb. 25.” An accompanying photo of the grinning winner, posted at the top of the story, was captioned, “Tom set an unofficial record for most pounds gained between the weighing in and weighing out of the finalists. He picked up 4.5 pounds thanks to his hearty consumption of a growler [pitcher] and a half of Wynkoop beer while on the hot seat.”
The author of the piece was Marty Jones, a former journalist who’s now a publicist. Jones was paid by Wynkoop Brewing Co. of Denver to generate publicity for the Wynkoop-sponsored contest, in which entrants answered brain-twisting questions about beer while quaffing large quantities of the Wynkoop brand.
YourHub liked the story so much it was featured in the No. 1 promo position on the homepage of many communities.
Jones said he originally submitted his release to the Denver Post, hoping the paper would spin it into a breezy feature. The Post didn’t bite, but routed the release to YourHub, with which it has a relationship through the Denver Newspaper Agency. (The Rocky Mountain News and the Post are partners in the agency.)
Jones said he was surprised — pleasantly — to discover that his piece appeared intact on YourHub, under his name. Nowhere in the article was Jones identified as a publicist for Wynkoop.
“YourHub is exactly that: Yours!” exclaims a statement on the site, which was launched in May 2005. “It’s a Web site built by the people in metro Denver with help from the Rocky Mountain News. People throughout metro Denver can access their own community’s YourHub.com Web site, featuring stories, photos, events, blogs and personal profiles posted by others in their community — that means you!” Within the site are 44 sub-sites covering Denver and the suburbs surrounding it. Every Thursday, a selection of postings are packaged in 15 tabloid YourHubs that are inserted in editions of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post that go to the papers’ subscribers.
YourHub is called “citizen journalism” by the Denver Newspaper Agency. John Temple, the editor and publisher of the News who brought YourHub into being, calls it a “community news initiative.” YourHub Managing Editor Travis Henry calls it a “bulletin board.” What it definitely is, based on the actual content, is a place where publicists like Marty Jones can be sure their releases will be published, with every product placement intact.
YourHub’s freewheeling policies about its content and how its stories are identified recently sparked attention after the online magazine New West, which mainly covers growth and environment issues in the Rocky Mountain region from its base in Missoula, Mont., carried a Feb. 24 tongue-in-cheek article about YourHub. Author Howard Rothman focused on Denver-area politicians who were using YourHub as a free megaphone for campaign ads or attacks on their opponents. The same day, two Poynter Institute columnists — Steve Yelvington, an Internet strategist at Morris Communications, and Kelly McBride, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute — picked up on Rothman’s story.
John Temple’s lengthy reply to the three critics was posted on Jim Romenesko’s Media News letters page on Poynter. Temple emphasized: “[YourHub] is meant to be a wide-open exchange of ideas, experiences and goods. However there is one requirement. To post, people must register … .”
But Temple was disingenuous. While YourHub registration requires name, address, phone number, e-mail address and other information, the user profiles that accompany articles (reached from a clickable byline) include only a name and community of residence. Unless registrants go out of their way to post details in a “biography” section — which few do — there is no contact information for users. Nor is there any hint of a given poster’s business or occupation — which would be nice to know in case the writer were selling something.
And, contrary to Temple’s implication, press releases snail-mailed or e-mailed to the Rocky Mountain News or Post, or YourHub, can and do wind up regularly on YourHub, completely bypassing the registration process. That’s how Marty Jones’ piece on the beer-drinking contest got in.
But many publicists do choose to register, providing just enough profile information to mask what they do.
Between Feb. 24 and March 11, various YourHub sub-sites ran 11 travel stories 31 times under the byline of Toni Barnett, among them “Puerto Vallarta Will Warm Your Soul” and “A 112 Mile Stretch of Paradise,” about Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Barnett’s profile on YourHub consisted of four words: “Toni Barnett, Boulder, CO.” But Barnett is manager of James TravelPOINTS, a Boulder travel agency specializing in international tours. A general clue to the connection between Barnett’s articles and her employer can usually be found at the end of her pieces, where the firm’s phone number and website are listed, without stating that Barnett is an employee.
On the sudden blossoming of her articles on YourHub, Barnett said, “We were hoping to get the articles [published] because we just started doing print advertising with them [YourHub].” YourHub Managing Editor Henry said, “Advertising and editorial are completely separate. … If we believe a story will be interesting for our readers we will run it, whether they are an advertiser or not.”
YourHub invites users to “share stories and photos about your town.” Exactly what stories about resorts in Mexico or “floating through France on a luxury hotel barge” have to do with life in Boulder or Golden or other YourHub communities is not clear. Barnett said, “I look at it two different ways. I hope people will find it interesting, and that I’ll receive their business.”
Nonprofit businesses and area governments have turned to YourHub as energetically, if not more so, than for-profits. A Feb. 22 story on YourHub was headlined “Dolphins Splash into The Wildlife Experience!” It was written by Keith Carlson, whose profile was as modest as Barnett’s: “Keith Carlson, Parker, CO.” But Carlson is actually communications director for the Wildlife Experience museum in Parker, where the dolphins were doing their splashing. Carlson has contributed six articles to YourHub — all of them about his place of employment.
On Feb. 14, YourHub carried a story whose headline, “County and mayors to honor teens,” suggested the perfect assignment for the local paper’s junior reporter. But the article was written by Mindy Endstrom, a communications specialist for Arapahoe County, Colo. On YourHub, Endstrom was identified only by name.
But not all contributors to YourHub hide under a bushel. Between Sept. 15, 2005, and March 11 of this year, chiropractor Sean Reif contributed 197 stories (counting multiple publications across the 44 YourHub sub-sites). Even more impressive, Reif received 127 comments on his stories that give him an excellent 4.6 rating (out of a possible 5). But it turns out that the most frequent commenter on Reif’s stories was Reif himself. Reif used the comments section to give himself five-star ratings, and also to snipe at medical doctors, as in his comment on comment on Jan. 18: “Few physician attempt to manage the whole range of disorders that can occur in infants, children, and adults, but those who do must have available a broad spectrum of current and accurate information. All need more information for study and examination purposes as well as for patient care … .” Reif gave himself five stars for that dig at doctors.
A few businesses are upfront about who they are in supplying stories for YourHub. A Jan. 20 article headlined “Business owners: How much should you pay yourself?” clearly identified author Bill Werley Jr. as a member of the Werley Financial Group of Lakewood, Colo. Werley’s optional “bio” section on his user profile also made clear his affiliation.
Another example of online transparency is Allison Hefner, a public relations specialist for Adventist Hospital. Hefner is the author of five articles, all about her employer. Her YourHub profile: “Allison Hefner serves as Littleton Adventist Hospital’s Public Relations specialist.” Of course, you’d have to click through to Hefner’s profile page to find that out.
Where’s the community news?
YourHub is a “work in progress,” according to Henry. “I am always looking at ways we can do things better,” he said. Henry adamantly defended the site’s skimpy profiles of contributors. “I don’t think we’ll tinker with that — no,” he said. “On the Web, we kind of have to leave it open.”
The 34-year-old Henry, who wrote editorials for the Daily Times-Call in Longmont, Colo., before helping to start YourHub in spring 2005, said he won’t get into a debate about whether the site meets any of the criteria of the developing phenomenon of citizen journalism. “[YourHub] may seem sloppy or messy, but people can decide what they want to take, and they do.”
Does YourHub give users well-rounded takes on their communities? “Between the stories that are posted, the news updates and blogs — yes,” Henry replied.
I went to the sub-site covering Golden — population 17,550 — and checked the main categories under “news.” Since YourHub launched in early May of 2005, the Golden sub-site has had 133 “general news stories,” seven on “government,” 23 on “politics” and three on “traffic.” Most of the “stories” were handouts on coming charity or other community events. Not one meeting of the Golden City Council was covered. The hot debate over whether a beltway should be built through Golden to connect two major roads was ignored. There was nothing on the struggle to save four historic but unprotected sites in Golden, and zero on a city-sponsored survey on what residents thought of their city (most of them were quite pleased).
The daily news updates included 10 to 12 links to news stories in the News and Post and sometimes to competing papers serving YourHub communities. But on an average day, only two or three of the zoned links focused on news from specific YourHub communities. On Feb. 28, on the Highlands Ranch sub-site, two of the 12 news updates had a Highlands Ranch connection. One was about a Highlands Ranch basketball player at the University of Northern Colorado achieving an academic honor; another was about Republican Lt. Gov. Jane Norton saying she would not challenge Democrat Rep. John Salazar, whose 3rd District includes Highlands Ranch. The remaining stories were about such non-local events as the Colorado House majority leader — who represents Boulder — collapsing on the chamber floor and a controversy over whether to convert HOV lanes to toll lanes on a road that was nowhere near Highlands Ranch.
Rocky Mountain News Editor and Publisher Temple, responding to critics in his Romenesko riposte, said YourHub users “seem to get it.” But what do they get besides a steady flow of press releases? It’s true that most of the PR is about worthy causes — fighting diseases, scholarships for deserving students and fund drives for struggling arts organizations. But can you cover 40-plus fast-growing communities in a large metro area by press release?
Publisher David Lewis of Mile High Newspapers Inc., which publishes four weekly newspapers in communities served by YourHub and a website that was started in response to YourHub, said, “We’re paying attention to them, but I’m not panicking.”
Lewis said his company commissioned a survey of 500 households in one contested community, the city of Arvada (population 100,000), in September 2005. The results showed 53 percent of those surveyed got their news from Mile High’s Arvada Press, 16 percent from the Rocky Mountain News, 12 percent from the Denver Post and half of 1 percent from YourHub.
He said the zoned weekly print versions of YourHub — which run 16 to 20 pages on average, with about 65 percent advertising — have a few ads he wishes his papers had, but that some other ads were simply shifted from the Rocky Mountain News or Denver Post. The Rocky Mountain News’ Temple acknowledged as much in his Romenesko posting by saying only 40 to 50 percent of YourHub ads — print and online — represented new revenue.
Lewis said he’d rate some of YourHub’s editorial content “appealing” and some of it “pap and boring.”
Henry proudly noted that the Rocky Mountain News hired 26 “trained journalists” as community editors to help contributors report and write stories for YourHub. But here are the priorities of the editor assigned to the communities of Golden, Evergreen and Conifer, as he listed them on his YourHub blog:
- Everyone else from Golden, Evergreen and Conifer
- Photos by people from Golden, Evergreen and Conifer.
These priorities may explain why hot civic controversies and threats to historic local sites don’t register on YourHub/Golden — or other YourHub sub-sites. Such issues tend to be complicated, which means they demand detailed reporting — a rare occurrence on YourHub.
Rocky Mountain News owner E.W. Scripps Co. has recently expanded YourHub to metro areas in five other states where it has print properties — California, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. If Scripps can get away with presenting a steady diet of press releases as “community news,” what impact will that have on grassroots journalism, which is still in its infancy?
In his column in the News, John Temple frequently talks about what journalism should mean. On Feb. 25, he wrote: “In my experience, a newsroom that produces great journalism is a newsroom that talks about values and standards.”
When will Temple, a passionate advocate of scrupulous journalism at his Rocky Mountain News, start talking about values and standards for YourHub?