Messenger admits story on North Sanpete coaches had some serious flaws

The Sanpete Messenger ran a story in this space last week about North Sanpete High School coaches that did not live up to our usual standards of journalism. In fact, it was exceptionally poor journalism.

The embarrassing thing is that I, the publisher and the person who has by far the most education and journalism experience of anyone on the staff, wrote the story.

Another reporter worked on the story and turned information over to me. But as publisher, and the person whose byline appeared, I take responsibility for the whole story.

In a nutshell, the problem with the story was that it contained innuendo that was not sufficiently supported by fact.

Reading between the lines, the story implied, first, that if five head coaches resigned in a short time, there must be problems in the school administration.

The first problem with that assumption is that Scott Butler, one of the coaches the story listed as resigning, has not resigned! During the 2020-21 school year, Butler was one of two head coaches of cross-country as well as head coach of track. The story said he resigned as track coach. Wrong. He explained in an email to me that he resigned the cross-country position but is still head track coach.

He had been teaching at Wasatch Academy while coaching at the high school. This year, he has been hired as a full-time teacher at North Sanpete Middle School.

After the story came out, and after I talked with or exchanged emails with three coaches and the high school principal, I concluded that in most cases, the coaches resigned for personal reasons ranging from the difficulty of commuting from Utah County to taking a different job and no longer having time for coaching.

One of the coaches I talked with after the story ran was Spencer Dyches, the wrestling coach. He said of the North Sanpete administration, “They were nothing but great to me, nothing but professional.”

The story accurately reported that after Dan Christensen, the baseball coach resigned, Austin Hadley, the son of the North Sanpete athletic director, applied for and was hired to coach baseball.

The story also accurately reported that after the basketball coach, Cris Hoopes, resigned, Bill Pollock, a teacher at the high school who had been one of Hoopes’ assistant coaches, was appointed as head coach.

That opened up an assistant-coach position. The story said that coincidentally there was another assistant-coach opening. In fact, there were two other assistant-coach openings or three total. Two people applied and both were hired. One of them was Clint Straatman, husband of Christy Straatman, the high school principal.

The tenor of the story was that nepotism could have been involved in the Hadley and Straatman appointments.

What I didn’t know, but would have found out if I had done my reporting properly, is that both Austin Hadley and Clint Straatman were already full-time teachers in the school district.

Because coaching is such a big commitment, and coaches hired out of the community sometimes can’t stay on very long, it makes perfect sense to me to put teachers in the jobs whenever possible. Coaching becomes an add-on to their regular work assignments.

After the story came out, I asked two coaches, Spencer Dyches and Dan Christensen if they thought there was nepotism at the school.

Dyches said, “Not at all.” Christensen said of the story, “It makes it look like there was nepotism going on. There wasn’t.”

The bottom line is that the Messenger talked to only two of the five coaches before the story ran. If I had talked to all five of them, or at least attempted to reach all of them, and also talked to the principal, I probably would not have run the story.

Finally, the story talked about the fact that one head coach position was open for two weeks. In another case, the district put a teacher who had been an assistant coach in a head-coach job without advertising the opening. In a third case, a head-coach job was open for at least a month before a teacher, also an assistant coach, was hired.

The implication was that the district picks and chooses the hiring strategy based on who it wants in the job.

The story, quoting O’Dee Hansen, assistant superintendent who is in charge of human resources, explains that under district policy, all of the options described are allowed. But why the variation in hiring for these positions? To this day, I don’t know. But the fact I don’t know exposes another flaw in my reporting.

About two weeks before the story went to press, I emailed O’Dee Hansen and asked if I could meet with him, but we weren’t able to set up a time. I did talk with him for about 15 minutes on the phone and send email questions to him, most of which he answered.

I’ve dealt with O’Dee Hansen a number of times over the years. He’s always been exceptionally responsive. But at the time I contacted him, he was in the final days of trying to fill positions before school started.

One of the biggest pitfalls in journalism is a rush to print. The story had been bouncing around our office since June. One of the criticisms we hear is that our stories aren’t timely.

But to report the coaches story, if I ran it at all, I needed to sit down with Hansen, face-to-face, in his office where he had access to his files and computer, and go through each of the five cases individually. How long was the job open? Why did you choose that timeframe? How many applicants were there? What was the background and qualifications of the person selected?

If I’d done that, I would have had a better general grasp of what was going on, and would have avoided the other horrible problem with the story: It was littered with errors.

When I went back over the story Monday, I found 12 of them, ranging from saying Rhett Bird, the principal’s son and the football coach, had been “hired” as a teacher at the school (he was already on the faculty), to saying Spencer Dyches resigned as wrestling coach in the middle of the season (he resigned at the end of the season).

One of the most glaring factual errors was in the first paragraph. When our newspaper first started working on the story, the original reporter said six coaches had quit during the second semester of last year. Jeff Jackson, a parent who originally asked me not to use his name but who decided Sunday to go on the record, also used the number six in an email to me.

One of my staff members, Lloyd Call, searched our archives to come up with photos of the six and pasted those photos into an In-Design file. At the time, Nathan Huntington, an assistant coach in the girls soccer program, was on the list of “resigned” coaches.

Later, it became obvious we only wanted to talk about “head” coaches. But we failed to pull Nathan Huntington’s picture off the In-Design page. His picture appeared even though he was not mentioned in the article.

Meanwhile, Lloyd Call went to a team photo in our 2018 Spring booster magazine. It contained photos of both Scott Butler, the track coach, and Bill Bedford, the assistant coach. Lloyd cropped out Bill Bedford’s photo rather than Scott Butler’s and put Scott Butler’s name under Bill Bedford’s picture.

As I was writing the story, the number “six” was stuck in my mind. In the first paragraph, I wrote that six coaches had left the high school. The resulting headline said, “North Sanpete loses six coaches in six months.” But the story only listed five coaches.

One coach I interviewed after the story came out said of the story, “It makes me look bad.” Nathan Huntington and Bill Bedford were undoubtedly harmed by their  pictures appearing when they had no role in the story.

There was no premeditation in our running the story the same week school started. But principal Straatman said when the newspaper showed up in the faculty room, it punctured morale at a time when she was trying to start the year on a high note.

If anyone was harmed in any way by the story, I sincerely apologize. That was never my intent.  

The article was an outlier. It is not representative of our prize-winning newspaper. Between Jan. 1, 2020 and Aug. 18, 2021 when the article appeared, my company published 157 newspapers. Based on an average number of editorial items per issue, those newspapers contained 2,835 articles, photobriefs or other items that potentially could have contained errors.

Whenever anyone points out an error, or when we discover an error even if no one complains about it, we run a correction. Not all community newspapers run corrections regularly, but we do.

From Jan. 1, 2020 to Aug. 18, 2021, we ran 31 corrections. That’s one correction for every 91 articles.

The mission of the Sanpete Messenger is community service. That mission has been my passion for nearly 21 years. That mission goes beyond putting out a paper. We are a training ground for high school and college students. We give tours of the newspaper to school classes.

The newspaper, and I personally, donate what money we can to community causes. We offer praise and support to fellow residents of the county in everyday interactions. And, yes, at times, we point out problems in the community.

“But we can’t fulfill our mission without community partners. The North Sanpete School District is one of the most important of those partners. In the aftermath of this story, we will be doing whatever we can to rebuild and enhance that relationship,” Dean said.