SALT LAKE CITY — It was the winter of 1978 and Doug Wilks was sitting on the top floor restaurant of the Hotel Utah listening to his father explain why he was getting a divorce, leaving their family, and moving to London.
Wilks and his older brother, both students at Brigham Young University, had chosen this restaurant because they were unfamiliar with Salt Lake City and didn’t know where else to eat. There had been no intended symbolism in meeting here, but now, 10 stories up and overlooking the Salt Lake Temple, Wilks couldn’t help but note the cruel irony of this setting. His parents had been “sealed” in a temple like this one and that dream was over now.
A few months later, Wilks, then 19, left for an LDS mission to Sweden. He wrote his mother and father separately every week, trying to understand what had happened. When his father came to Sweden on business, Wilks’ mission president permitted them to travel together on a transfer from one city to another, talking for hours on a train winding through the Swedish countryside. Letters became cathartic.
“I’d say to my dad, ‘What are you doing? You left mom and now here you are starting a new life,’” Wilks recalls now. “That divorce, you see some things. You realize what’s important and what’s not.”
Now 57, with graying hair and a scar on his chest from open-heart surgery, that moment seems like a lifetime ago. And yet, from the window of his fifth-floor office in the Triad Center, where he sits today as the new editor of the Deseret News, he can swivel his chair and see the top floor of the old Hotel Utah, now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Doug and Christiana Wilks walk in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
It’s remarkable how much of Wilks’ life today is contained, and defined, by the blocks around that building. He lives across the street in a condo at City Creek with his wife of 32 years, Christiana. A few blocks to the north of that, he serves as an LDS bishop to one of Salt Lake’s oldest congregations. He walks everywhere, and usually in a triangle: home, office, church. And everywhere he goes, he sees the 28-story headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the paper.
Sitting in his new office, Wilks reflects on the journey that has improbably brought him to this place and on that day so many years ago. “My father was a great man,” Wilks says, his voice thick with emotion. “He still is. He just made a terrible choice I didn’t like.” Even at 19, he says, he didn’t feel anger as much as sadness. Mostly he wanted to understand where his dad was coming from and how he could help.
“I can’t find an entry point to judge someone,” Wilks says. “When bad things happen you have a greater measure of loving like God does. That was one of those moments.”
It’s hard to boil any man down to one trait. Ask Wilks what his greatest fear is, and he struggles to come up with an answer. Ask him his favorite book, and he hems and haws. But ask Wilks what trait he most deplores in others, and he doesn’t hesitate: “Being judgmental.” Those who know him well say his ability to see things from both sides and approach anyone — family or strangers — with empathy and compassion is his defining trait.
“It’s who he is to the core,” his wife, Christiana, says. “If there’s a conversation and we’re being critical of someone, maybe just venting, he’ll always say, ‘Yeah, but ’ And then he’ll try to see things from their side.”
It’s also indicative of who Wilks is as a journalist and provides a peek in to how he might lead the Deseret News at a time when the newspaper industry has never been more challenged or imperiled.
In the summer of 2010, Clark Gilbert, the new president and CEO of the Deseret News, gathered the staff in the newsroom with some sobering news: The trends that had upended the newspaper industry for years had finally hit the Salt Lake market. No longer able to rely on classified revenue to subsidize reporting costs, the paper was operating at a loss for the first time in its 166-year history, and nearly half the staff would have to go — 53 full-time and 28-part time employees.
Clark Gilbert addresses the staff of the Deseret News on May 20, 2010 in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Tom Smart, Deseret News
Gilbert, a former Harvard Business School professor, had made the newspaper industry the focus of much of his academic work and consulted with The New York Times and The Washington Post. Now the head of the largest media organization in the state, he could finally put those ideas into practice, and he did so at a breakneck pace. He moved the newspaper staff from the Deseret News building on 100 South to the Triad Center, combining the newsrooms of the LDS Church-owned KSL-TV and radio with the paper, and set up a network of unpaid correspondents to make up for the reporters lost to layoffs. Most significantly, he both enlarged and focused the mission of the paper.
At the heart of Gilbert’s philosophy lay this maxim: The internet rewards specialization, and in the internet age, if you’re not the best at something, you’re one click away from someone who is.
Gilbert applied that same philosophy to the Deseret News. Looking at internal metrics, the newly installed digital team knew that more than 60 percent of the paper’s traffic came from outside the state, and most readers visited the site for news related to the LDS Church. The Deseret News needed to think bigger, Gilbert decided. It wasn’t just a local newspaper; it had national, even international reach. That meant reaching not just Mormons, but a global audience that shared similar values.
Within the first year, page views were up by 50 percent and unique monthly visitors had increased by 40 percent, making the Deseret News the fastest-growing newspaper website in America with a digital circulation that ranked 22nd in the nation.
The paper also introduced a new national edition, designed to reach the Mormon diaspora and others interested in rigorous and authoritative content related to faith and family issues, and it began a global syndication network that included partnerships with papers like The Arizona Republic and The Oklahoman. In 2013, thanks largely to the national edition, which ran as a supplement in Utah papers from Logan to St. George, Sunday circulation rose to 183,049, a 10 percent increase.
The paper’s strategy and growth started gaining national attention from places like the American Press Institute, the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and Poynter, an industry think tank. Gilbert and former editor and publisher Paul Edwards parlayed that increased profile into partnerships with The Atlantic and the Brookings Institution.
Some of the paper’s moves were met with controversy and criticism closer to home.
At a contentious meeting on Capitol Hill in late 2011, legislators complained that the paper had shifted its focus to its growing national and international audience at the expense of local coverage. Part of the problem was that the combined Deseret News/KSL newsroom wasn’t working as Gilbert and Edwards had hoped.
It was around this time the paper hired Wilks to manage the combined newsroom and strengthen local coverage.
“It was a big challenge,” Wilks says. “And I was excited about that. But I had no idea what I was in for.”
When Wilks came to the Deseret News in 2012, no one on the staff knew much about him other than that he had been helping run newspapers in the Bay Area for nearly two decades.
Wilks was born in Long Island in 1959, and his grandfather and father both worked in journalism before leaving the profession for better paying jobs in public relations. When Wilks was 7, the family moved to the Bay Area, where both of his parents had graduated from Stanford (his father was editor of the Stanford Daily).
Wilks ran track and played football in high school and was a preferred walk-on at BYU as a defensive back. That year, 1977, the team was filled with talent, including a freshman named Jim McMahon and greats like Gifford Nielsen and Marc Wilson. When Wilks got back from his mission, however, he had changed. “I remember getting hit after my mission and it just felt different. I knew if I could stick with it, maybe I could rise to second string, that was the best I was going to do.”
And so he hung it up. On a trip from London his father asked him what he wanted to do with his life. He could pursue a career in public relations like he had, or he could work in journalism, a career that helped shape his father.
The advice he received was pivotal: Public relations required crafting a message to the desire of the client, his father said. Journalism required a loyalty to the truth.
Wilks had already begun stringing for the Provo Daily Herald, at one point filing stories 30 days straight during the Utah County floods of 1983, and eventually he took his first full-time job there. “I made $220 a week,” Wilks recalls. “It was brilliant. I loved it.”
After five years, he took a job as city editor, then managing editor at the Napa Valley Register and moved to increasingly bigger papers until he was one of the editors of The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California, a paper then owned by The New York Times.
One of his reporters at the Press Democrat, Derek Moore, remembers an afternoon in 2001 when they got a tip that a 14-year-old high school student had called a cab from school and asked the driver to take her to San Francisco. At the Golden Gate Bridge she got out, walked to the railing and jumped.
It was late in the evening by the time Moore finished the story. Wilks had stayed an extra shift to edit the final copy, and when they were done Moore gave him a ride home. They’d both worked 12 hours, but Wilks hardly seemed tired. Instead, his focus was on the pain the mother of the girl must have felt and how shocking the story was.
“By the time I got in to work the next day, Doug was already there and had sent a note saying what a great job I’d done,” Moore recalls. “That’s one of the things that separated Doug from all the other editors I’ve worked with. You got the sense that Doug really cared about you beyond just what he could get out of you for the next day’s paper.”
From afar, Wilks was watching the changes the Deseret News was making. Like other journalists around the country, he was intrigued. The industry seemed to be imploding, with few visionaries who had a plan for the future. Every time his paper was hit with layoffs, Wilks wondered what he would do if his job was cut. He’d built a career around a particular skill set, but it was fair to wonder if that skill set was becoming obsolete.
During trips to Utah, Wilks met with then-editor Joe Cannon and managing editor Rick Hall. Meetings would later occur with Gilbert and Edwards, who later became the paper’s editor and publisher, launching a series of conversations that eventually led to Wilks' hire in Jan. 2012.
Strengthening the newsroom was a challenge, especially figuring out how to leverage the different media platforms of the Deseret News and KSL.
“The success came as we built relationships between the teams. Strong journalism requires trust, and we needed to trust each other in print, web and broadcasting as we improved our coverage and report,” Wilks said.
When Edwards left the paper in November 2016 to join Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration, Wilks became the paper’s 30th editor, joining a list of past editors that include George Q. Cannon and Willard Richards, boldfaced names in the Mormon world. In the paper’s early years, editors were high-ranking Mormon officials, often apostles, and throughout its history only a small handful of editors of the Deseret News have had any journalism experience. In fact, Wilks is the first since John Hughes, who retired in 2006, to have worked as a journalist prior to becoming editor-in-chief.
Doug Wilks, left, editor of the Deseret News, and Burke Olsen, the newly-named head digital officer for the Deseret News, talk after a staff meeting in Salt Lake City on Dec. 21, 2016. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
On Dec. 21, he gained the additional title of head content officer, and Burke Olsen, previously the general manager of DeseretNews.com, was named head digital officer. The two report to an interim publisher and work hand-in-hand as the Deseret News continues its digital transformation.
Wilks brings a perspective informed by both his work as a journalist and his background in Mormonism.
“The purpose of the paper and the purpose of the church are different,” Wilks says. “We absolutely have respect for our owner, and we’re part of their mission, but we are not a PR arm for the church. The church has that. This is different.”
When Wilks was helping manage The Press Democrat during Proposition 8, his reporters knew he was a devout Mormon, and that the church opposed gay marriage, but they didn’t know where Wilks stood on the issue. “I was able to provide a perspective of a conservative Mormon in a liberal newsroom. Our newsroom was full of people with different points of view,” Wilks says. “And we respected them all.”
Moore says Wilks’ religion never impacted stories negatively or caused him to shy away from coverage of certain topics. In fact, Wilks once ran a wine country living magazine when he lived in Napa, even though he doesn’t drink wine because of his religious beliefs.
“Doug is a man of faith, and at times in more quiet moments where he would share thoughts, or I would ask him about some of the tenets of the faith, he was always very open,” Moore says. “But it felt like he was a journalist first in the newsroom.”
Three years ago, Wilks was moving an empty cooler from his apartment at City Creek when he asked his wife, Christiana, if they could stop and rest. He’d been catching himself out of breath frequently, and Christiana suggested they go check it out. A few hours later, sitting in a hospital bed in Murray, the doctors told him he wouldn’t be going home anytime soon. He needed a quintuple bypass.
Wilks’ thoughts turned to the newsroom at the Triad Center, but lying in bed the night before his surgery, he realized the next day’s paper was the least of his concerns. Although the procedure was in some ways routine for his team of cardiologists, if something went wrong this could be it.
“It was like, ‘OK, are you ready to meet your maker?’” Wilks recalls thinking. “I did not have confirmation that I’ve lived my life in a way that all’s going to be well. I could think of shortcomings, things I still need to repent of. I still think about that a lot. If this is it, would I be ready? Maybe that’s why I’m patient with the shortcomings of others; I see them in myself. It’s why it’s hard for me to judge anybody.”
Wilks can cast an intimidating presence in the newsroom. During meetings, he often sits quietly, listening and observing other editors. When he finally weighs in, he speaks quietly but directly and quickly gets to the heart of the matter. He’s known for asking reporters and editors blunt, sometimes uncomfortable questions that push to get to the deeper truth of a story or issue.
Doug and Christiana Wilks in Salt Lake City on Jan. 6, 2017. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Christiana laughs when she hears Doug can be intimidating in the newsroom, saying her husband is nothing like that at home. In fact, after a few years of marriage she made a rule: no more pranks.
A classically trained pianist, with short, dark hair and penetrating eyes, she is a chic and stylish counterpoint to a guy who she describes as “a true Californian: beach, football, cutoffs and flip-flops.”
“I had a very formal childhood. My parents would take us to the opera. Doug has helped me learn how to relax,” she says. “But he can be intimidating as an editor because he has very high standards. He wants the best possible product, and he’ll push till he gets it.”
She says his appointment as editor does make her nervous. She doesn’t like attention, and neither does he, and now he’s become a public face of one of the city’s most storied institutions.
And yet, she thinks his ability to never judge others and see both sides of an issue makes him perfectly suited for the job, especially at this time in the paper’s history.
“When he walks to work from here, it’s a short walk, but almost every day he’s approached by the homeless. He doesn’t hurry on or try to ignore them, he stops and talks to them, and tries to hear them. To him, everyone is a person. That’s how Doug is, and that’s how he’ll approach this job.”
The challenges Wilks faces as an editor are immense, perhaps among the gravest any editor of the Deseret News has faced. He sometimes jokes that he doesn’t want to be the last editor of the paper. While most of the economy has recovered from the Great Recession, the newspaper industry remains challenged. In 2015, weekday circulation for newspapers fell 7 percent, the greatest decline since 2010, and advertising revenue saw its greatest drop since 2009. That has contributed to a continued hollowing out of the profession: newsroom employment dropped 10 percent in 2015, the most since 2009.
Doug Wilks talks to staff after being announced as the new editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City on Nov. 10, 2016. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
For all of the paper’s innovations, the Deseret News has not been able to entirely insulate itself from these trends, and some of the industry’s bullish prognostications about the rise of digital revenue were undone by forces Gilbert never could have envisioned: the rise of mobile consumption of news, primarily on phones, and the domination of Google and Facebook as preferred distribution platforms. These two factors have made it extremely difficult to get as much out of online advertising as publishers had hoped.
Seth Lewis, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, says the industry has been reckoning with this reality the last couple years, and some are pivoting back to print as a main revenue source and reinvesting in local news.
“I think the (Deseret News) has done really interesting things the last few years, but it’s a bit of a question where it goes from here,” Lewis says. “Do they further invest in a national strategy, come back and reinvest in local coverage or try to do both at the same time?”
Both, Wilks says. His mantra since becoming editor is to do coverage that “moves the needle” on pressing issues, such as teen suicide or the refugee crisis. But he also wants the paper to continue with Gilbert’s digital strategy, serving the Mormon diaspora and a national audience searching for smart solutions to problems. He recently presented at a Constructive Journalism conference in the Netherlands discussing the Deseret News’ distinctive strategy.
He’s seated in his new office, which he hasn’t had time to decorate. A tangle of cables is unplugged, a stack of newspapers sits on his desk, and his phone keeps beeping with emails and texts from people who want to meet him.10 comments on this story
He turns in his chair and looks across an empty parking lot toward the old Hotel Utah and the Salt Lake Temple, thinking back on that pivotal day so many years ago.
He never could’ve imagined he’d one day be in this seat, and as daunting as the challenges are before him as editor, he says he’s inspired by what lies before him.
“We have to be accurate, we have to be authoritative and smart,” Wilks says. “You work to make your report unimpeachable, and that’s a pretty high standard. Have you done the legwork? Have you done the research? Have you been ethical? Journalism is an imperfect profession, but you strive to do a very, very good job.”