PROVO, UT — In 1995, James “Jay” Shelledy, then the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, started a newsstand and billboard campaign asking people to “Think of Utah Without It”—“it” being the Tribune. The campaign was ostensibly in response to the newspaper strike unfolding at the time in Detroit, but it was also meant to emphasize the independence and singular journalistic role of the Tribune in Utah.

Eighteen years later, recalling that statement is enough to send a chill down the spine of Utah’s journalism community. We’re not close to being without the Tribune, but we’re closer than we’d like. Two weeks ago the paper’s management made the latest in a series of downsizing moves, laying off 17 full-time and two part-time staff employees—nearly 20 percent of the staff. Nancy Conway, Utah’s first woman editor of a major metro, and editorial page editor Vern Anderson will retire early at the end of this month. Publisher Dean Singleton will leave that post, though he will remain chairman of the paper’s board. In just two years, according to its own pages, the Tribune has reduced its staff from 148 to 93.

The Tribune’s own coverage treated the layoffs as a big deal, as did the Radio West program on local NPR affiliate KUER, where I participated in a discussion in the wake of the cuts. And they are a big deal. People who live outside the Beehive State may not be aware of the Tribune’s central role in politics and public policy here, but the paper is the state’s most important news organization for hard-hitting coverage and civic engagement. Under Conway’s leadership it has also become an ardent watchdog of open government, pouring money into lawyers, lobbyists, and coverage to protect the public’s access to records and meetings. (Disclosure: in recent years I wrote a column about open government and First Amendment issues for the Tribune.)

Managing editor Terry Orme, who will assume the titles of editor and publisher, didn’t sugarcoat the impact of the cuts, which he said were ordered by Digital First Media, the New York City-based firm that manages MediaNews Group. The paper will be at fewer meetings, and won’t be able to cover some issues in the same way, Orme told KUER’s Doug Fabrizio.

The Tribune’s future success will depend in part on lively online coverage, Orme said: “The content [on the website] has to be fresh and new.”

At the same time, Orme added in the radio interview, “We have to be the Tribune. The Tribune has traditionally been the place to go for meaningful enterprise, investigative work and explanatory journalism,” he said. “We have to be able to do that and be alive online… We are committed to maintain the role that the Tribune has traditionally played—a serious, intelligent, fair discussion of the major issues that face the state.” (I’ve written before about the Tribune’s success in using Web tools to make its investigative work interesting and accessible.)

Orme and the paper’s remaining leadership will soon have critical decisions to make about what gets covered, and what doesn’t. The layoffs gutted the Tribune business desk, and environment reporter Judy Fahys and Utah journalism veteran Peg McEntee were laid off. Kim Mangum, a communication professor at the University of Utah, told me she sees the Tribune’s future in local coverage that tells more stories about neighborhoods and local politics.

On air, Orme emphasized that the Tribune wouldn’t be abandoning environmental coverage—a key beat in a state that, despite its wide-open spaces, is one of the most urbanized in the country. The paper also maintains a strong presence in Washington, with two reporters covering Utah’s interests in the nation’s capital. And it remains a leader on Utah’s Capitol Hill with reporters like Robert Gehrke, whose ground-breaking coverage led to an ethics investigation of state Attorney General John Swallow.

Orme, on KUER, said the Tribune’s drastic downsizing is a “little late” when compared to many other papers around the country. But it has the same cause—cratering print revenues, and an inability to generate cash from a digital audience, even as that audience grows.

A different story at the Deseret News

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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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell.