Deseret News gets national attention in study of newspaper innovation

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

According to Doug Wilks, managing editor for the news division of the Deseret News, digging deeper means "reporters look at what matters to Utah's families by approaching each story with layers of inquiry that provide the context for important community issues."

Wilks, who joined Deseret News after 13 years with a New York Times Regional Media Group paper, points to recent local coverage where "we questioned deeper at the Legislature and in our schools; we identified trends and provided context on criminal behavior and police response. And we're always looking for solutions to the problems we identify."

The paper now focuses heavily on six areas — faith, the family, financial responsibility, education, care for the poor, and values in the media.

“You have to make tough choices about what you want to do if you want to play on the national landscape,” said Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News. “If smaller organizations are going to thrive in the digital space, they have to be known for a certain approach, a certain tack.”

"We want to own (coverage of) faith and the family the way the Washington Post owns politics," Gilbert said.

In addition to shifting emphasis, the Deseret News is looking to raise its profile by spreading its reach, Edwards said. The first half of this effort is a new national edition of the paper, with in-depth reporting in the six areas of emphasis. The other side of the strategy is to syndicate the content, building partnerships with news websites looking for quality reporting on rarely addressed issues.

Both the national edition and syndication efforts are still in early stages of development, and the national edition website is scheduled to come online late this spring.

“Few papers have the opportunity to gather a national or international audience around a set of shared values in way the Deseret News does,” said Rick Edmonds, who researches media innovation at another journalism think tank, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“The point is to take an audit of your strength and your opportunities,” Edmonds said, citing another paper that is building a brand around in-depth coverage of a local professional sports team with a national following.

Digital differentiation

But editorial focus is only part of the story. “News has never been a good business by itself,” said Chris Lee, president of Deseret Digital Media. “It’s a mission. It’s a brand builder. But it isn’t the way that anyone is ever going to make money.”

Indeed, one of Gilbert’s boldest moves, the Project for Excellence in Journalism report noted, was to separate the print newspaper from the online digital product — separate businesses, separate staff, separate revenue streams.

“The legacy business is the crocodile,” the report stated, summarizing Gilbert’s philosophy, “the prehistoric creature that will shrink, but can survive. The digital business is the mammal, the new life form designed to dominate the future. And they need to be managed apart.”

Gilbert did this by splitting the Deseret News from Deseret Digital Media. The latter now includes the websites for KSL radio and television, the Deseret News website and handful of other smaller subsidiaries.

Making money from digital news remains a conundrum, said Edmonds. “One of the difficulties is that digital advertising is really hard to grow with plain vanilla banner ads. There are so many other places advertisers can turn, and many are more naturally targeted to specific audiences. So the rates keep falling.”

Edmonds called Craigslist “the leading edge” of a shift that took newspaper classified business down to 1/5 of its size. “Google search had a lot to do with it. (And) there are other competitors for digital advertising,” he said.

He also noted that many businesses that formerly relied heavily on newspaper ads now spend a lot of money on building their own websites and a creating direct digital shopping experience.

“New audiences have responded well to smartphones,” Edmonds said, "but advertisers are not really sure yet what works best on those platforms.”

In an industry where dwindling print revenue continues to dwarf struggling digital contributions, the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media stand out. 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.

A big part of that success is the KSL marketplace, a classified section that pre-empted Craigslist locally and now dominates the classified market along the Wasatch front.

Other innovations come from launching digital-only sales channels, creating digital services for small- and medium-sized businesses and creating a travel site through ventures like utah.com and saltlake.com.

“I don’t know of any other efforts to take the metro daily to this level," Edwards said. "It’s pretty audacious, actually. But it’s gratifying to see some lift."

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere