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Deseret News gets national attention in study of newspaper innovation

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23 2013 8:30 p.m. MST

After achieving average revenue growth of nearly 40 percent each of the past four years, Deseret Digital Media now produces more than one quarter of the revenue of the entire media business, including print and broadcast.

SALT LAKE CITY — Two years after launching a major restructuring, the Deseret News has staked its ground as a strategic leader in a newspaper industry still struggling with revenue and readership, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Based in Washington, D.C., Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism is one of the nation's leading research centers for the study of journalism. The Deseret News was one of four newspapers identified by the project for a report on news organizations that are "revenue success stories."

This recognition comes on the heels of the Deseret News being identified as the second-fastest growing news publication in the nation by the Alliance for Audited Media.

The study itself follows on a Project for Excellence in Journalism report issued last March that portrayed an industry in a state of inertia, still heavily dependent on print revenue even as that revenue fell off sharply.

By 2011, newspaper ad revenue nationally had fallen to half of where it stood in 2006, the project reported. And newspapers were not making up print losses with digital gains, losing $7 in print revenue for every $1 gained in digital.

“Frankly we were besieged by people who wanted to know if there was anything worth sharing,” said Mark Jurkowitz, the lead researcher on both reports.

Among the stories Jurkowitz found worth sharing was how the Deseret News and its sister organization, Deseret Digital Media, have defied national trends by increasing digital revenue growth and print circulation.

The other case studies in the report are of the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat, the Naples (Fla.) Daily News, and the Columbia (South Carolina) Daily Herald, with each paper contributing a distinctive possibility to the mix. The Press Democrat, for example, is building a separate revenue stream with a Media Lab that offers a wide array of marketing services to local businesses.

The report cites the Deseret News for two key innovations — improving quality coverage by focusing its editorial voice and separating the digital business from the legacy newspaper.

Editorial emphasis

Responding to the rapid demise of print advertising revenue after 2008, the Deseret News hired new leadership determined to drive change that better matched the changing landscape. This led to a strategic redirection in 2010, including staff cutbacks.

Clark Gilbert leads the current management team. Jurkowitz calls Gilbert “one of the most visible thinkers” in the industry. Gilbert is a former Harvard business professor who, early in his career, collaborated with Harvard’s disruptive-innovation guru Clayton Christensen in studying how to reinvent the newspaper industry, alongside other industries threatened by technological change.

One of the keys to reinventing the Deseret News under Gilbert's direction, the report concluded, was a commitment to focusing coverage on issues and topics where the paper enjoyed strong comparative and competitive advantages.

The Deseret News redirected resources away from areas that are not unique — such as style, arts and city politics — and focused instead on quality content that builds on the editorial strengths of the paper while targeting audiences that the paper feels no one else is properly serving.

“In the case of the Deseret News,” the report states, “the response was not only to shift the focus of coverage from general interest to faith and family, but to dig deeper into those topics with more ambitious, enterprise reporting.”

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