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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 7:26 p.m. MST

Gilbert said many publications simply want to put on the Internet what they’ve traditionally published in print editions. That’s not nearly enough for success in the new communications world. Transformations of both digital and print must occur simultaneously, he said, and that’s difficult for traditional newspaper people to pull off. “Both transformations require real innovation, fresh thinking and doing things differently,” he said. “You can’t just tinker at the edges.”

On the digital side, Gilbert has separated online operations from the TV, radio and print businesses so that digital media innovation can flourish with new digital products and services unencumbered by traditional news media thinking. There’s a reason digital powerhouses like Google, Amazon and Facebook didn’t come out of the media world, even though they’re essentially in the information and advertising business, just like newspapers. Journalists think like journalists, not like digital media innovators.

Thus, for the digital side of the business, Gilbert has hired staff from some of the top digital companies in the country, not from journalistic ranks. While focusing on news and information, the digital side is creating products and services for a worldwide audience. KSL.com and Deseretnews.com, combined, are now web powerhouses. “We don’t compete against the Tribune,” Gilbert said. “We compete for advertising against Google, Yahoo, Facebook and so forth. Those are the guys that keep us humble, keep us up at night.”

Deseret Digital Media has created a Web Content Dashboard for digital innovation that tracks and measures key metrics in 16 different categories in areas such as audience engagement, audience growth, new sources of content, multimedia and mobile. The dashboard shows managers in real time how affiliated websites are performing and what content, design, apps, video, search and social strategies are most popular and effective among users. The dashboard has been adopted by The American Press Institute and the Poynter Institute as a tool they will use in online courses for newspaper digital content managers.

Digital business now accounts for 50 percent of new revenue growth at the Deseret News. Overall, digital brings in well over one-quarter of the company’s revenue (with the rest coming from newspaper, TV, radio) and is expected to rise to one-half of revenue before long, Gilbert said, and will eventually subsidize the print business.

But print isn’t dead, Gilbert predicts, as long as publishers are willing to truly transform the print product determining more precisely their missions, their market niches and where they can excel. In a day when high-quality specialty publications all over the world are readily accessible at the click of a mouse, it makes no sense for newspapers to try to be all things to all people. “The old way of thinking is to cover everything,” he said. “That doesn’t work today. It’s too expensive.”

Why should the Washington Post cover fashion, for example, when numerous fashion publications and blogs cover fashion in far more depth and detail, Gilbert asked. “Covering everything creates a very expensive cost structure. You push that high cost structure on covering things you’re really not very good at.” He said he heard an industry leader say that newspapers have been variety shows. “We can’t afford that anymore. The web provides access to detailed, expert information in every area. We have to decide what we can contribute that no one else can do — that our audience is interested in. And then we have to determine how we will innovate around that very relevant product that we produce.”

So what is the Deseret News market niche? After much research and consideration, the paper decided on the six areas of editorial focus: the family, excellence in education, faith in the community, financial responsibility, care for the poor and values in the media.

“We can be the best in the world at in-depth, family-focused news and information -- topics we know from research that our audience is highly interested in. We have a top-quality enterprise team that produces excellent in-depth stories on these topics. We are winning national awards covering topics relevant to our audience.”

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