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

The Salt Lake Tribune, for many decades, has been the big kid on the Utah newspaper block. While circulation fluctuated over the years, the Tribune usually enjoyed double the Deseret News daily and Sunday readership. I remember when a former Tribune publisher and Newspaper Agency Corporation president predicted that one day only one newspaper would survive in Salt Lake City — and it wouldn’t be the Deseret News.

Today, it is the Deseret News that is growing more robustly and that appears poised for significant breakthroughs in both revenue and readership.

Interestingly, some of the old disadvantages associated with the Deseret News have now become advantages. For example, when I worked for the Deseret News, LDS Church ownership was considered a mixed blessing, with more negatives than positives. Today, with the ability to reach audiences throughout the world via the Internet, church ownership provides a growing worldwide market (some 14 million LDS members) for the Deseret News. The Deseretnews.com website receives more readership outside of Utah than inside.

While the Tribune’s market is Utah’s metropolitan area and, to a lesser extent, rural Utah, the Deseret News can craft information products and services not just for Utah, but for church members and like-minded people across the country and the world. That’s a big market that the Deseret News and sister companies are clearly targeting. The newspaper has ambitions to become much more than just a Utah publication.

What’s more, in the age of digital convergence, the family of communications businesses owned by the LDS Church complement each other nicely and can be leveraged so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. While that process of convergence is very difficult, and all the possible synergies and benefits have yet to be realized, it’s clear that KSL Radio, KSL TV, the Deseret News, Deseret Book and Deseret Digital Media, with their respective on-line operations, can become a powerhouse media empire capable of dominating Utah and reaching out to worldwide church membership and other targeted markets.

Certainly, the type of journalism being practiced at the Deseret News is different today, and it grates mightily on traditional journalists. Top management positions are held mostly by people who didn’t grow up in the newspaper industry.

So can non-journalists successfully run a daily newspaper? I sat down for an hour with Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of the Deseret News Publishing Co. and Deseret Digital Media, to discuss the paper’s business model and editorial voice.

Gilbert was quick to mention that he doesn’t want anyone to think that the Deseret News has the new and challenging world of journalism figured out, especially in such a rapidly-changing media environment. “The industry is really nervous; we’re seeing lots of alarm,” Gilbert said. “Every newsroom in America is under pressure.”

He said the Deseret News is making progress but has a long way to go, and other media organizations are also doing innovative things. He mentioned the Boston Globe, the Atlantic magazine and McClatchy newspapers as making breakthroughs in navigating the digital world. “They are figuring out what their niches are and focusing on their strengths, both in print and online.”

But the Deseret News is also attracting a lot of attention. Gilbert said Deseret News executives are receiving numerous invitations to make presentations and frequently host visits from other newspapers, “including some big names in newspapers and magazines.” Publisher Chris Lee spent two days in New York at the Harvard Media Club, discussing Deseret News innovations with a number of large publications, including the New York Times, The Financial Times, The Economist and also broadcast outlets like NBC and CNN.

“We were receiving so many invitations to go out and speak that we didn’t have enough time, so we suggested a two-day workshop in Salt Lake City,” Gilbert said of the September seminar. “People want to know how we have transformed the print business, what content and business model innovations we’re making.” Some 35 editors and audience managers from papers large and small attended. Editors from papers like the Las Vegas Review Journal and the Southbend Tribune mingled with digital directors of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News.

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