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 Gilbert wants to effectively cover topical in-depth news and important Utah issues, but typical newspaper coverage won’t necessarily be the emphasis. “We don’t have unlimited resources, so we may not do as much traditional coverage as our competition does on Capitol Hill. But we know what our audience wants, not just what newsroom wants. We’re having an impact with in-depth stories on what really matters to our readers. We won’t cover every city council meeting, but we will focus on the issues that matter to Utah families and will go deep on these issues. Look at the stories where the Deseret News leads the dialogue in our Utah communities. Examples include immigration and our recent five-part series on the Census; Utah caucuses and voter participation; education reform in Utah’s K-12 and higher education; community standards on such issues as air quality, alcohol consumption and fiscal prudence in our state and local budgets. These are the issues that matter to Utah families and these are the issues where we are investing and shaping the conversation in this state.”

Stories related to the six areas of focus aren’t just fluffy pieces, he said. “We’re doing deeper analysis. Utah families want stories that are relevant to family and faith, but not puff features. Our journalists will provide insights and answers. We need great reporting, real rigor and deep analysis.” He believes good progress is being made.

“We believe good journalism is really, really important,” Gilbert said. “But it has to be paid for, and we can’t do everything. We have to innovate the legacy journalism models. Southwest Airlines was the low cost leader, but it invested more on customer service, where the real value was, than other airlines. We have to decide where the real value is. That’s where we’re making our investment.”

The paper isn’t yet where it needs to be, Gilbert said. “We make plenty of mistakes, and we still have a long way to go. If you ever decide you’ve figured it out, you’re in trouble. We have an owner who understands this is a long-term process. We have to keep recreating and keep innovating. The industry is far from having all the answers.”

My own sense, and I believe it is reflected among Utah community leaders, is that the Deseret News is now producing some good journalism and has probably developed a business model that can survive and perhaps even thrive in the challenging media market. The church, family and values-oriented coverage is nicely done and improving, for those who are interested (certainly, a majority of Utahns).

But the Tribune is still ahead of the Deseret News in breaking news, local coverage, business coverage and particularly political and government coverage. Tribune editors and reporters are better at anticipating important local stories and providing more in-depth coverage. The Tribune is more effectively playing the traditional watchdog role of a fiercely independent daily newspaper.

When I made that point to Gilbert, he said: “I won’t directly disagree. But I would respond that we feel we are playing the watchdog role for faith and families where traditional media organizations have failed or walked away. Religious liberty is under attack in America despite its protections in the Constitution. The American family is in decline with 1-in-3 children growing up without a father in the home. Where is the watchdog role that the industry speaks so much about? We believe that it is actually the Deseret News that is fiercely independent — independent of other media who have largely failed to play the role for families and faith institutions that they have so often played for others who are maligned or misrepresented.”

While seasoned journalists and hard news junkies may not like the direction of the Deseret News, Gilbert clearly isn’t worried about them. His target is families and individuals who share the values of the six areas of focus, not journalists.

When I was in the newspaper business years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the Tribune would always dominate. Utahns who are not of the Mormon faith, and many less-active Mormons would want to read the non-church owned paper. They make up more than half the population. But today, with overall newspaper readership in decline and traditional models under siege, the old expectations may not play out. The Tribune is pursuing a more traditional newspaper business model, but it doesn’t have all the synergies and advantages that the Deseret News has with its big web presence, sister companies and potential worldwide audience. The circulation trends appear to be in favor of the Deseret News.

It will be fascinating to watch over the next few years what happens with Utah’s two largest newspapers. They are clearly going in different directions, pursuing different business and journalism models.

LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and publisher of Utah Policy Daily www.utahpolicy.com. Email: lwebb@exoro.com.

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