The long knives come out: Tribune articles on UTOPIA

Bad news sells, and the Tribune seems to think that business is good. Over the weekend, they published a long series of articles on UTOPIA that follow the all-too-standard pattern of raking the network over the coals with many of the same rehashed arguments from years past. Four of the nine articles make reference to network debt in their headlines (often spuriously), and eight of them use negative references there. Despite the overly negative tone of the coverage (no doubt fueled by the opinions of the editorial staff), there’s a few pieces of useful and interesting information to be gleaned (not to mention corrections to be made). Continue reading

UTOPIA Sued: Is there really a story here?

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Chris Hogan, one of UTOPIA’s former execs, has filed a suit against the agency over violations of his employment contract. The suit alleges that consulting firm TetraTech was awarded an improper contract for network construction because Executive Director Todd Marriott’s brother is a manger there. The suit also alleges that Hogan’s replacement, Gary Jones, is Marriott’s neighbor.¬†Now I’ve got friends on both sides of this, so this is where I tread very, very lightly.

I can’t speak to Mr. Jones’ qualifications, but I do know that UTOPIA has done plenty of business with TetraTech in the past. They are also a very large multi-national corporation with offices across the world, including two here in Salt Lake County. Even with the blood relationship between the Marriotts, I don’t see that this would necessarily disqualify TetraTech from being a candidate, especially if the work they did in the past was up-to-par.

UTOPIA has also told me that Hogan’s contract was up for renewal and they opted to not renew it. Obviously, I don’t have any details beyond that, but the timing does seem to coincide with my recollection of when he was brought on. Assuming an annual contract, the timing would likely fit.

The Tribune, however, doesn’t dive into any of this background to provide essential context here. I also noticed that they did not include any statements from UTOPIA to provide balance to the story, though I imagine with pending litigation, they can’t really say too much anyway. This is the far too common behavior I’ve come to expect from Utah’s major media outlets when it comes to UTOPIA. They present very one-sided stories and practically cheerlead for UTOPIA’s failure from the editorial pages. There are two sides to every story, but outlets like the Tribune and Deseret “News” are only concerned with the doom-and-gloom side that moves papers.

Salt Lake Tribune Employs Cable Industry Shill to Review UTOPIA Plan

The Salt Lake Tribune ran an article today about UTOPIA’s new business plan in which a Mr. Ron Rizzuto continually discounted it. The article cites that Mr. Rizzuto is a professor at the University of Denver; this is true. What is omitted, though, is much more telling. Mr. Rizzuto is a senior fellow at The Cable Center, an organization funded by the cable industry. Not only that, Comcast’s Executive Vice President, David L. Cohen, is a member of the organization’s board.

It’s not surprising that a cable industry shill would attempt to trash UTOPIA in the press. It’s not even surprising that he would attempt to portray himself as a dispassionate and disinterested third party. Both of these have been done time and time again, like when Heartland Institute’s Steven Titch did consulting work for Qwest and claimed it had no bearing on his harsh criticisms for iProvo and UTOPIA. If anything, I automatically expect some kind of conflict of interest to emerge from parties opposed to UTOPIA as so many of them will always act in their own financial best interests. (Utah Taxpayer’s Association, I’m looking at you.)

What is surprising, shameful, and downright embarrassing is that the Salt Lake Tribune didn’t spend the entire 2 minutes on Google required to find all of this out. Even if they did, they chose not to disclose it in their article. One of two things happened: they were either negligent in their journalistic duties or (and this is more likely) they are continuing to advance the position of the editorial board that UTOPIA cannot succeed. Whichever it is, I am deeply unimpressed.

iProvo, the Media, and Fake News

Both the Salt Lake Tribune and Daily Herald have run articles about closed-door meetings between Provo Mayor John Curtis and members of the municipal council. These meetings included only a few council members at a time so as to avoid the requirement to hold open meetings. An e-mail from the mayor indicated that these meetings were to discuss a “plan B” for iProvo. There’s just one small problem: Veracity (or at least the C-level executive there I talked to) apparently had no idea the meetings had taken place until I called to find out what’s up.

I have a number of problems with this, not the least of which is the environment of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that this creates. You may recall that Provo had to have a number of meetings in the midst of Broadweave’s impending default to figure out what to do prior to the network being handed back to the city in worse shape than when it left. You may also recall that I had copious amounts of sharp criticism for Broadweave, all of which was based on the company history (or, more ¬†precisely, the lack thereof), hearsay about the internal disfunction at the company, and confirmations that they had to continue to use a line of credit to continue making bond payments. In this case, Veracity is a company with a solid reputation, no reportable internal strife, and a healthy cash flow from other operations. In short, there is little evidence from that side that any kind of network trouble is in the works at all.

Unfortunately, the refusal to discuss the “plan” B and how likely or, in my belief, unlikely it may be in a public venue combined with a media tendency to puff up bad news (love you guys, but you do it way too much) has combined to create nothing more than a cloud of unfounded speculation and innuendo. While Broadweave was always tight-lipped about operations, Veracity has been very open with me and has pretty bluntly stated what they’re doing with the network: cross-subsidizing it while pursuing the only customers really left, the single-family homes. Given their strong presence in other markets, I don’t doubt their capability to do so. Selling millions of minutes of voice a month is much more stable than a thousand double-play customers in an insulated (and competition-free) housing development.

This kind of pessimistic journalism, while no doubt backed up by experience, is not new. UTOPIA regularly faces one-sided stories and unrebutted opinion pieces in all of the major dailies. The only paper that consistently seems to take their job of presenting all facts seriously has been The Davis County Clipper. This is simply unacceptable. There are a lot of people depending on the newspapers to get the story straight the first time, even if it means pushing back the deadlines so you can track down and talk to other sources.

(For the record, I actually agree with Royce Van Tassell on something: more open meetings are a Good Thing. I’ve been hounding UTOPIA for the better part of two years to toss more data out in the public. Provo shouldn’t resort to so much secrecy.)

Letter to the Editor: Utah Taypayers Association Lacks Credibility on UTOPIA

The following letter to the editor was submitted to the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, Daily Herald, Ogden Standard-Examiner, and Davis County Clipper. It was published in the Clipper and an abbreviated version is currently slated to appear in the Tribune.

UPDATE: Here’s the letter published in the Tribune.

Whenever there is criticism leveled towards UTOPIA, you will usually find the Utah Taxpayers Association screaming the loudest. The irony is that they are one of the least-qualified to criticize UTOPIA or make any commentary on telecommunications policy.

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Provo Gets Black Eye Over Sale of iProvo

The Society of Professional Journalists gave Provo an award, but not the kind they would want to get. The city received the 2009 Black Hole Award for repeatedly refusing to provide documents concerning the sale of iProvo to reporters from the Salt Lake Tribune. The failure to provide documents prevented newspapers and citizens from being able to review the terms of the sale prior to a vote by the city council. As I’ve repeatedly said, the failure to allow everyday citizens to review the full terms of the sale and the conditions under which it was negotiated combined with the rush for a quick vote was highly suspect. I suppose we all know that now with the multiple bond payments that have been made from a line of credit designed to protect the city should Broadweave fail.