Written September 1, 2010     

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© 2016 Bob Lonsberry

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It’s ironic that KSL is taking over the “Deseret News,” because it was KSL that killed the “Deseret News.”

In Salt Lake City, the two heritage media properties of the Mormon church are being cobbled into one in hopes that the strengths of the one can compensate for the weaknesses of the other.

The “Deseret News,” the oldest daily newspaper in the state, announced the firing of more than 40 percent of its staff this week and the closing of its newsroom. Under a new plan of operation, the remaining “Deseret News” reporters and editors will be folded into the existing newsroom of KSL.

The combined staffs will be augmented by articles not from journalists, but from “experts.” Together, the news report will be pushed onto as yet undefined and probably unconceived Internet products.

It is a bold leap into the dark necessitated by the dynamic of the newspaper industry and the prospect of new technology.

The “Deseret News” has thus far survived about 20 years longer than most newspapers in its situation. As the smaller daily in a two-paper town, it relied on the loyal readership of Utah Mormons to stay in business.

But newspapers don’t make money from readers, they make money from advertisers.

Which is where KSL cut the throat of the “Deseret News.”

As important as display ads are to the financial health of a newspaper, it is classified advertising that has traditionally been the foundation of a paper’s profitability. Unfortunately – maybe even tragically – free Internet ads have gutted classified revenues across the country. Craigslist and the jobs websites are the enemy of newspapers.

In Utah, however, the online classified site at KSL.com dominates. Reading the classifieds in Salt Lake City means going to KSL.com.

Which is very good for KSL, but not so good for the “Deseret News.” Ironically, the success of one arm of the Mormon church’s local media company meant the doom of another. Unwisely, the overall operation was able to move its classified ads business from a place of high profit to a place of almost no profit. What the company had been charging for at the “Deseret News,” it essentially gave away at KSL.com.

That’s a good way to get web hits, but a bad way to get dollars.

And a bad way to keep a newspaper in business.

Which led to this weeks desperate effort to keep the ship afloat. The week after America’s other church-owned newspaper – “The Washington Times” – had to reorganize to stay afloat, the “Deseret News” launched its own survival plan.

Who knows if it will work.

Radio and TV reporters are very different from newspaper reporters. Print journalism is very different from broadcast journalism and the standards and ethics of the industries are different. Putting a bunch of print people and broadcast people together in the same newsroom will lead to unavoidable conflict.

But that conflict will only be an echo of what is happening elsewhere in the news business. If there is a way forward for American journalism, it will be forged in situations like the one KSL and the “Deseret News” are embarking on. Newspaper reporting has been essential throughout American history, but Americans don’t read or pay for newspapers anymore. Print’s advertising-based business model is sadly no longer viable.

Many people believe that it is technology that is killing newspapers, that people want to get their news online. That is only partially true. The real poison is that the advertising dollars just aren’t there to pay the wages and the overhead.

And thus far those advertising dollars aren’t being found on the Internet either. We have lots of great apps and sites, but the money to make the content is really not there.

So the challenge for the new Salt Lake news operation is two fold: To find a way to merge and communicate; and a way to pay the bills.

No one yet seems to have figured those problems out. Hopefully, this new venture will be the experiment that discovers answers not just for the “Deseret News,” but for all of American newspapering.

On the upside, KSL’s approach to its website is excellent. Also, in its non-commercial, religious media operations, the Mormon church has lately done brilliant work. It has been absolutely cutting edge, all across the Internet spectrum. If the religious side of the house can communicate some of that innovation and passion to the broadcasting side of the house, good things might happen.

Further, the “Deseret News” has wisely already begun to position itself in the Internet world as not just a source of Utah news, but as a source of Mormon news and lifestyle information. Its MormonTimes.com enterprise hopes to offer an Internet product to Mormons around the world. In the late 1800s, the purpose of the “Deseret News” was to communicate to a Mormon audience. More than a century later, returning to that basic mission may be the key to its survival and profitability.

There are some flies in the ointment, however.

One is the announced reliance on non-reporters. Headed by an editor with no background in journalism, the new “Deseret News” will be directed largely by and publish the work of people who aren’t reporters. That might be fine theoretically, but it ignores the fact that, actually, journalism is a trade or profession that requires – like most industries – specialized skills.

Another weakness is the new operation’s list of six “values.”

They are: The family; financial responsibility; excellence in education; care for the needy; values in the media; faith in the community.

All nice words, none of them with any particularly specific meaning. And in the world of Utah politics, “excellence in education” and “care for the needy” refer to increased taxation and government funding for both. The culture of many Mormons is moving toward the social-justice ministry embraced by now-dwindling mainstream Christian denominations 20 or 30 years ago, and these two “values” seem to be an embrace of that, but they also may alienate dyed-in-the-wool Mormon conservatives who remain the last loyal supporters of the “Deseret News.”

The consolidation of the “Deseret News” and KSL is neither good nor bad, it is necessary. It is the last hope for the newspaper and the best hope for some sort of significant commercial news success on the Internet. The hope is that talented people in an innovative do-or-die situation will come up with something great.

It is a fair hope.

In the era of easy communication, we ironically have dramatically less substantive communication, especially in the news business. For American journalism to survive as something other than a myriad of ego-driven blog blowhards, it must find a way to be popular and profitable.

This new Salt Lake undertaking will try to do that.

Here’s wishing it success.

Because the stakes are greater than just the survival of the “Deseret News,” and the people impacted will be far more than just those in Utah.

- by Bob Lonsberry © 2010

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