Newsletters are a lot more than church bulletins - they are actually a whole new media genre. A powerful industry has been created of newsheets aimed at insiders in various professions and businesses who want information they can't easily find elsewhere, and as one editor put it, "are willing to pay through the nose for."
LaVarr Webb, who was at the Deseret News for 15 years, most recently as managing editor and before that as city editor and political editor, figures a lot of people need or crave such news of Utah politics. He has brought out two issues of a 24-page, letter-sized newsletter, named PowerBase, which he calls a journal. He promises to publish it every three weeks.It is a frank, smart, chatty, anecdotal and unabashedly gossipy look at politics, politicians, media and people such as lobbyists who maneuver in the political system. It's the sort of stuff politicians might rap about at a power lunch. Webb sometimes writes in the first person and with an omniscience he couldn't indulge in at the News, since the daily press is much more impersonal and detached.
For instance, each issue has an interesting grid in which people who have been "mentioned" as candidates are rated on how committed they are to the race. When Webb rates Patrick Shea as "feigning indifference" to a run at the governorship, he has read the political indicators but not Shea's mind.
WEBB HAS SIGNED UP 350 subscribers and needs that many more to break even. The target reader is a politician, lawyer, campaign consultant, contributor to either party, or public official. Six angels helped with seed money. Three are Democrats - Kem Gardner, Dale Zabriskie and Mickey Gallivan - and three are Republicans - Michael Leavitt, David Jordan and Chris Cannon - reflecting Webb's promise to be nonpartisan.
He also has an advisory board comprised of those six and some other long-ball hitters in Utah media and politics. None is an officeholder, but many are political aspirants. In putting the board together, Webb has tried to be scrupulously fair to various interests. In his first issue he writes, "Dick Carter of the Utah Wilderness Association wrote me a letter expressing concern about lack of envirnonmentalists on the advisory board. So we invited him to join."
Can PowerBase be critical about its board members, who are, after all, mostly the very kind of political animals its articles focus on? Apparently so. Webb says that all have been told that board membership does not confer immunity. The first issue carried three articles on one of them, Richard Eyre, limning his potential bid for the governorship, his book and biography, the second another look at him as one of a raftful of hopefuls. I found these overall positive but not puff pieces, the second issue saying that a "good share of the reaction to Eyre's book, `Utah in the Year 2000,' is negative," and opining that "the political establishment is not quite sure" what to think about him.
Like most newsletters, PowerBase carries no advertising, so the subscribers pay the full freight. It costs $92 a year or about $5 a copy. That's steep compared to costs of other media. But it's pocket change compared to what most newsletters charge, up to $4,000 a year for what they tell a player in, say, oil or junk bonds. Other political newsletters Webb has looked at, mostly regional, cost, he says, up to $500 a year for a dozen issues.
- WHAT WILL POWERBASE DELIVER that people can't get in the other media? "The traditional media are geared to the general public. What they write about politics and the media is usually for that public. When I was managing editor I used to tell the News reporters to write not for their sources but for the average reader. PowerBase on the other hand is specifically for insiders, people who want more details and information that presume they have more insight into political life."
The first issue has a speculative piece on the upcoming Salt Lake mayoral race. Webb figures that Mayor Palmer DePaulis will take a stab at the governorship because after 12 years, "it's time for new challenges." Another looks at the state of Utah's Republican Party. You have to take his sources on faith, because often he uses a broad brush and does not mention by names: "GOP insiders everywhere are crying: `We need leadership!' "
SO FAR MOST OF THE WRITING has been Webb's own, though like every publisher he needs tips and free-lance stuff. Washington, D.C., news is being contributed by the only other regular writer, Debbie Davidson, journalist wife of Lee Davidson, Deseret News Washington correspondent. Incidentally, one of the fun pieces in the second issue is Lee Davidson's humorous response to a story in the initial edition that called him "dour" and "bullheaded," among other adjectives.
Webb also says that since the media don't do a good job of covering themselves, particularly in explaining the business and management sides, he hopes to fill that void. The second issue, which came out April 15, has a piece on the changes at the helm at the Salt Lake Tribune, where James E. Shelledy has replaced the retired Will Fehr as editor and named Thomas Kearns McCarthey as deputy editor. ("Placing McCarthey in top management gives the stockholders a key position.") The Salt Lake dailies have covered some of the changes at the Tribune, such as its axing of its Washington staff, but neither has tried to predict what the changes will add up to. Webb does: "Major changes are coming, revenues are tight and reporters who aren't hustling and producing won't last long."
- THE ODDS ARE ALMOST always against any new publication's succeeding. PowerBase isn't going to make him or his investors rich. Webb works out of his home in Centerville, and his wife, Janis, is his circulation manager.
Webb has an amazing equanimity about the possibility that those other 350 or more subscribers won't turn up. ("It's never been done before, so we're not quite sure what we're getting into . . . . We're not yet certain if enough people will subscribe for the publication to succeed," he told his readers.) The 1992 election, with a wide-open gubernatorial race and redistricting looming, may help him. Getting mileage month after month out of Utah's somewhat limited group of personalities and issues without becoming tiresome could become a problem.
If the subscribers don't materialize Webb will refund the balance of the subscriptions that have been paid and focus on his other interests. He is managing editor of Utah Fishing, a 10,000-circulation magazine he and two brothers are trying to develop into a broader wildlife publication, and a consultant and writer for the thrice-weekly free circulation Orem paper, the Utah County Journal.