The state of the newspaper industry: Has the Deseret News found the right formula?

By LaVarr Webb

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Nov. 16 2012 5:50 p.m. MST

Young Electric Sign company workers install the new Deseret News sign Saturday, July 2, 2011 on the Triad Center.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Originally published at utahpolicy.com. Republished here with permission.

Way back in 1861, Wilbur F. Storey, the owner and editor of the Chicago Times, articulated what became the de facto mission of aggressive daily newspapers for some 150 years. “It is a newspaper’s duty,” he said, “to print the news and raise hell.”

Well, that’s not exactly the mission of the Deseret News these days. The paper has replaced Storey’s memorable exhortation with six core areas of editorial focus: the family, excellence in education, faith in the community, financial responsibility, care for the poor and values in the media.

That doesn’t sound like nearly as much fun as printing the news and raising hell. But, for the Deseret News, at least, it might just be the better journalistic and business model for surviving the communications upheaval that is ravaging the newspaper industry, wreaking havoc on those once-influential, proud and feared pillars of society.

As a former journalist and current political consultant, I have always advised clients not to get into fights with the folks who “buy ink by the barrel and paper by the roll — and always have the last word.” But today, ink and paper are not necessary to communicate with any audience in the world. Everyone can be a publisher. And anyone with enough patience to keep posting responses — however irrelevant and offensive — can have the last word.

Thus, newspapers are struggling. Newspapers don’t just compete with each other or with TV and radio. They compete with Facebook, Google, Yahoo, CraigsList and even Apple and Amazon. Many of the papers that have followed Storey’s advice are in big trouble, trying to find a financial model that works in our media-saturated world.

The New York Times took a look at its own industry recently and didn’t raise hell but found a lot of newspapers going through hell. Reporter David Carr wrote that the newspaper industry is “by all appearances … starting to come apart.” The “financial stress is more visible by the week,” caused by declining advertising revenue and unfunded pensions. Some papers are declaring bankruptcy; some papers are reducing print publication to three days a week.

And how does the industry engage a younger generation that is the most media-savvy and information-obsessed in history — but isn’t reading newspapers?

Interestingly, the Deseret News seems to be poking its masthead out of the wreckage and is being viewed around the U.S. newspaper industry as a publication that just might have some answers, might be developing a model — even a print model — that works in the digital age. Several dozen editors and publishers from around the country who want to take a look at the Deseret News model, along with other successful initiatives, came to Utah in September and were hosted by the Deseret News.

As a former longtime employee of the Deseret News (political editor, city editor, managing editor and current co-author of a Sunday political column), I have been fascinated to watch the evolution of my old paper (I left 12 years ago), especially since the arrival of a number of new executives, mostly from outside the newspaper industry, who have been running the paper for the last few years.

I haven’t always liked what I’ve seen, especially with regard to hard news coverage of government and politics. But I’m also a realist who has watched as digital technology has forced a number of industries (music, book publishing, photography, retailing, telecommunications, etc.) to endure the process of creative destruction — either change dramatically or die. It’s likely that old practitioners like me, steeped in journalistic tradition, could not lead the transformation that is required to make money, while producing good journalism, in the Digital Age. Lots of old-time journalists are failing.

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