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

So the Deseret News may not cover every city council meeting or legislative hearing, but it will cover the big issues, the big themes, the trends that emerge in politics and government, through the lens of one of its six areas of emphasis. “How does public policy affect families?” Gilbert asked. “You’ll see great reporting here, better than anywhere in the country. We will lead on stories that really matter to Utah families.”

And, Gilbert said, this strategy travels well, providing opportunities for the Deseret News to become a national newspaper. “We have compelling research data in Utah and nationally that a big market exists for stories and information that relate to our six areas of focus. These aren’t just LDS Church members. Good people all over the country share these values. Some 56 percent of all Americans feel the same way Utah families do about values and culture. This is what they want. It spikes off the chart. The LDS market is large, but a much bigger market exists for our reporting. No one else is doing this kind of reporting. That’s our brand position. Over half of Americans and two-thirds of Utahns is not just a niche. It’s the dominant market and it’s almost entirely under-served. That’s where we differentiate our reporting. People want what we’re producing.”

Thus, Gilbert has created a weekly national edition of the Deseret News. It’s being mailed out around the country and is inserted in newspapers in St. George, Logan, and papers in Idaho, with more coming. LDS Institutes on college campuses around the country are distributing it. In the face of print circulation declines at nearly all newspapers, the national edition has allowed the Deseret News to buck the trend for Sunday circulation. With its national edition, the Deseret News has a combined Sunday newspaper circulation of 176,000 in November, much higher than the Tribune’s 135,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. (The ABC numbers include print, print replica [PDF] and app subscriptions but not website readership.) Deseret News weekday circulation also grew substantially, while Tribune daily circulation fell slightly. “Our goal is to be one of the top 25 papers in the country in circulation,” said Gilbert, “and we’ll get there. We are strengthening our voice. We’re in markets we haven’t been in before.”

The newspaper has also created a syndication service, selling in-depth, family-oriented content to other print and online publications. “Were extending our reach,” said Gilbert. The paper is publishing a number of stories, focused on the six areas of emphasis, that don’t even use local sources. A recent story, for example, on “co-parenting” in families where the parents are divorced, used a variety of academic and government sources outside of Utah.

Quality local news coverage is clearly a sensitive topic for Gilbert and other Deseret News executives. The paper went through a difficult period with major layoffs, the use of citizen contributors and reduced hard news coverage of government and politics. Quality suffered. Staff morale plummeted. The Richard Burwash incident was emblematic of the problems, when the mayor of West Valley City submitted articles under a fake name.

Gilbert feels local news coverage is now stabilizing and improving. He hired Douglas Wilkes, whom he described as an “excellent, hard-nosed journalist” (from the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif.) as managing editor of the integrated newsroom. “Doug demands rigor, integrity and he pushes us to go deeper,” Gilbert said. “We’re now doing some excellent enterprise journalism on local topics reflected in our six areas of focus, which is what our audience cares about.”

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