As the Tribune sorts out a path forward, Utah’s other leading newspaper is becoming something of a digital darling, even as it targets a culturally conservative audience.
The Deseret News, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, went through its own massive layoffs in September 2010. In the wake of that move, the paper started building a network of volunteer contributors to augment its paid staff, and made a new effort to capture the global Mormon audience while also attracting US readers who care about its six core editorial themes: “faith, family, care for the poor, values in the media, education, and financial responsibility.”
Compared to the Tribune, the News spends far fewer resources on local, state, and federal government reporting, with more coverage of issues like religious liberty, marriage, and the evils of pornography. (That’s not to say that the Tribune neglects faith and religion issues. One laid-off Tribune staffer joked that religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack would be the last be let go in any scenario, because of the popularity of her religion reports and blog. Though it was founded as the 19th-century voice of opposition to the Mormon church, and conservative critics today view it as the “liberal media,” the Trib long ago shed its virulent anti-Mormonism and about 40 percent of its current readership is Mormon.)
The News’s approach has led to circulation gains that have brought the two papers to print parity: the latest audited figures have the Tribune at 104,023 daily circulation and the News at 103,190.
But the outlet has earned particular kudos from segments of the industry for its new digital strategy, including a converged digital newsroom with KSL-TV and KSL radio. The News has seen rapidly growing digital readership—and also rising digital revenues Its CEO, Harvard Business School alumnus Clark Gilbert, has become a fixture at conferences and training sessions, in Pew case studies, and even in the pages of the Harvard Business Review. Less than a week after the layoffs at the Tribune, Gilbert was named “Innovator of the Year” by the Local Media Association, a trade group of suburban and community newspapers.
Now, news organizations as large as The Washington Post say they are watching what the Deseret News is doing. But it’s not clear how well the paper’s model might translate to other outlets that don’t share the same unique conditions. And while the News is growing again by tailoring its coverage for a target audience, its editorial emphasis means the paper is unlikely to provide the sort of aggressive watchdog reporting that may be lost amid the latest cuts at the Tribune.
In fact, the News’ change in focus three years ago left a clear field for the Tribune to grow—if it could surmount the challenges affecting metro papers around the country. But that growth didn’t happen for the Trib’s print publication, and growth online didn’t lead to saving jobs.
Can the paper that is the state’s leader in accountability journalism find a sustainable business model? Can the company that’s winning industry innovation awards deliver more hard-hitting coverage (and does it want to)? Are there openings for new sources of community and alternative journalism in the state?
It’s a fascinating and in some ways frightening moment for journalism in Utah. Or, as Kim Magnum, the professor, put it: “It’s a creative time. It is a desperate time.”
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