Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Why We Chose to Sit on the Facebook Data Center Story

bernick mugBeing in the journalism business for 40 years gives a guy some perspective on one of the most critical news decisions: When do you run a story, and when do you hold off publication for any number of reasons?

UtahPolicy publisher LaVarr Webb and Managing Editor Bryan Schott faced that question last February when Schott and I figured out that a newly-introduced bill, SB178, was a closeted attempt to lure a huge tech firm – Facebook – to Utah for a multi-million computer data storage facility.

Schott and I had the story nailed down – Utah economic development folks with a few insider lawmakers were trying to induce the massive social media firm to locate here, creating hundreds of high-paying jobs once finished, and even more during construction.

Like their Apple buddies, Facebook wanted this kept secret – it is the nature of their hi-tech businesses.

We were told it was because the firm was negotiating with several large property owners, who might demand higher prices for their land if they knew a multi-billion company was behind the purchase.

In any case, a UtahPolicy decision had to be made.

Correctly, I believe, Webb and Schott decided to hold the story until the bill was passed, signed into law, and Facebook was ready to make the deal public.

Now, I figured all along that UtahPolicy would get scooped on this story.

I’ve been on the losing side of such editorial decisions for years at the Deseret News – where depending on the story the editors, for any number of reasons, didn’t want to be breaking the almost always bad news.

The thinking was: Let the Trib or AP or TV news station break the story, and then the DN can’t be blamed for the resulting hullabaloo.

But Webb and Schott aren’t the old DN-type editors.

And I was wondering what their decision would be – for I was already leaning myself (he who is a contributing editor and has no power over publication decisions) to not running the story and screw up the Facebook deal for Utah.

As a young, eager newspaperman, 30 years ago I would have wanted to run such a story – and pushed editors to do so any number of times.

But with age comes wisdom, and maybe even a little sympathy for the folks who – because of UtahPolicy – might otherwise lose out on the job of building the huge data center, or be employed there.

Is discretion really the better part of valor?

Or is it just the hope of playing it safe?

For me, the don’t-publish UtahPolicy decision back in February was a no-brainer.

Yes, UtahPolicy would probably get scooped one way or another (actually, while the Trib did break the story that Facebook was looking for a lot of electrical power in Arizona or Utah, UtahPolicy broke the story of the legislative political intrigue, ending in failure of the bill at the end of the 2016 Legislature, only to rise again for Wednesday’s special session).

So, in the end, all turned out well.

Assuming Utah is competitive enough to get the big data center (maybe located next to the NSA facility, thus making it easier for the federal government to look through all of your Facebook postings). (That was a joke.)

This is not to say in the future that UtahPolicy may hold another story on attempts to slide through sensitive bills/tax incentives for the sake of economic development, jobs and the promises of free chocolate malts for life (although the later would be a tough one for me, I love chocolate malts).

It is to say there can often be consequences to publishing a sensitive story when you get it – and those who ultimately suffer won’t have anything to do with the original story itself.

For now, I defend the decision to hold off on the Facebook story.

Utah may not get the facility after all.

But Mark Zuckerberg should know he owes Webb and Schott a scoop down the line (and I’m not talking about ice cream here).