The print version of the Deseret News may be gone within 10 or 15 years: So said the man who oversees the LDS Church's for-profit media companies in speaking to a public policy seminar Friday.
Instead, readers and viewers of Utah's oldest newspaper will get their newspaper-like stories, opinion and analysis through strictly electronic means, said Mark Willis.
Willis is CEO of Deseret Digital Media, an umbrella media firm. Willis directly oversees KSL-TV and radio as well as the online and other electronic platforms of news, entertainment, sports and so on.
He spoke at the annual Legislative Policy Summit sponsored by The Exoro Group, a public policy firm, and UtahPolicy, its online political news magazine. The seminar was hosted by Zions Bank, a UtahPolicy sponsor.
Nancy Conway, editor of The Salt Tribune, disagrees with Willis, telling the dozens of government, public relations, communication and public policy professionals in the Zions Bank center that she believes the paper Tribune will be around for the foreseeable future.
Willis doesn't believe that the Deseret News is in financial trouble long term. Just the opposite. He said that the DN and other church-owned trusted media sources would be around for a long, long time. But how that news is delivered will change.
Partly joking, Willis, a former publisher of the Los Angles Times, said his opinion of the printed newspapers staying power changed “with the IPad.”
As the older generation that now loves the printed newspaper dies away, a new, tech-savvy generation that gets its news from computers, tablet products, even smartphones, will slowly take over.
And there simply won't be the demand for the printed newspaper, he told about 200 seminar attendees Friday morning.
Gov. Gary Herbert, several legislators and policy experts spoke on other important public policy issues facing Utahns. In addition, a new Dan Jones & Associates poll on a variety of topics was released. Those will be covered in following UtahPolicy stories.
Willis and Conway were invited to talk about the changing face of local and national media in a panel discussion and question-and-answer segment moderated by KUER's Doug Fabrizio.
Fabrizio didn't let the two media bosses off easy, peppering them with questions of his own and follow-up questions from the audience.
Is the Deseret News pandering to local and national Mormons in its revamped coverage, especially through its online editions? Fabrizio asked.
Not really, said Willis.
The Deseret News keeps high journalist professional standards on the purely news side of its operations. As does KSL-TV and radio. And by combining the newspaper, TV and radio staffs “we have the largest newsroom in the state, by far,” Willis said.
Because of severe financial stress on newspapers across the country, you can take several tacks, he said. The newspaper chose to reduce staff as well as seek other revenue sources, mainly online. Last summer the DN laid off 43 percent of its staff. In addition, several reporters, editors and columnists have left the paper, after being kept on after the layoffs, and went to work for the Tribune.
Even though the Deseret News built a new downtown headquarters several years ago, the reduced staff has been moved to the KSL-TV and radio headquarters in the Triad Center on 300 West and North Temple.
Full “convergency” has started and will be complete within six months – as the old newsrooms work together to produce stories, pictures and other content for all the platforms, with a new web site being the key – and hopefully the first – place that news will break, Willis said.
First will come a quick story on the web site, then a more detailed story on radio, then TV, and finally, in the next morning's newspaper a story that puts “into context” what the news event is and what it means to citizens.
It will be the best of all worlds, he said.
The Deseret Digital Media web site's traffic is growing like weeds, said Willis, hinting that the DN is doing much better there than the Tribune.
Willis said that 95 percent of DN newspaper subscribers are Mormons, and the paper is trying to cover issues important to them. But half of KSL-TV viewers are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Conway said half of the Tribune readers are Mormons, and about half of the Trib staffers are LDS as well.
Conway said the Tribune, owned by MediaNews, a Denver-based newspaper conglomerate, would keep its emphasis on the printed newspaper product while improving its online web site. While there is a KUTV news camera in the Trib newsroom where reporters can talk about their stories if the Channel 2 group wants them, the Tribune is not pursuing “convergence” with any other media, not looking to officially work with any other media.
The Tribune is not ignoring electronic deliverance, she said. The Trib's web site regularly beats the DN and local TV station's sites on breaking news, she said.
The Tribune is making money, with about 70 percent of its revenues coming from newspaper advertising, she said. But while the Tribune's staff is larger today than it was seven years ago when she took over the paper, that 70 percent ad revenue won't pay all the bills.
MediaOne, the joint-publishing firm owned jointly by the Deseret News and Tribune, is making money, enough money that allows the Tribune, which gets a greater share of the MediaOne profits than does the Deseret News, to be profitable.
MediaOne is now printing the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Provo Herald and a number of magazines in the local area. In addition, MediaOne is selling real estate and taking on other projects that are bringing in money. And that is critical, Conway says, because that allows the Tribune to stay in the black.
Journalism ethics, professionalism and civility were discussed in several ways. Conway said she decided to re-assign well-known Trib blogger Glen Warchol from blogging to feature writing “because at first he came close to the line” of writing too personally about issues “and jump off the cliff.”
Warchol's blog was “an experiment” in reporting facts with some personal analysis. The blog was a success, with a large number of hits, she said. But the Tribune won't be driven just by what readers want to see, but what they need to see, all balanced by professionalism.
“It's still hard for me to believe that the printed version of journalism will disappear,” Conway said.
Willis said he and the other two top bosses at the company are PhDs and MBAs, not journalists, and that's been criticized in other media. But that's an asset, not a detriment, because new thinking and new ways must be found to build strong media companies, he said.
“The way we did things two years ago will be completely different, completely, within six months,” he said as the reorganizing of the Deseret News, KSL-TV and radio and their web sites are completed.
Is the Deseret News too Mormon? Fabrizio asked Willis. Well, Willis said, readers want news and information that are relevant to them, their lives. If 95 percent of your readers are of one faith, they are naturally interested in faith-related matters.
But it is still critical that those folks read, view and listen to responsibly presented alternatives – and all with respect and civil dialogue.
Incivility is the main reason, said Willis, that he pulled down the comment pages on KSL-TV. “Some comments were hurtful and hateful,” not adding to civil dialogue, said Willis. “We'd had it, we pulled it.”
The Deseret News’s process for public comments on online stories was changed, and commentators must register, give their name and, in some cases, have their comments edited on various levels.
Conway said to deal with the 1,600 comments posted daily on the Tribune web site would take two full time staffers, and they just aren't going to do it.
Tribune comment boards are basically “reader self controlled,” she said. If any comment gets five “thumbs down” – you can click on thumbs up or down – it is “hidden” and not readable unless the reader clicks on it to see it. No changes are planned for Tribune comments.
Willis said something had to be done. Some well-known and respected persons whom DN editors approached to write comments to start a civil dialogue refused, saying they would just be attacked, sometimes in a vicious manner, and they wouldn't participate.
The Deseret News will continue solicit “free” content, having a variety of folks writing opinion pieces and stories, said Willis.
For example, the News won't have full-time writer/critic reviewing the Utah
Symphony, said Willis, but will have “well known, educated and respected” classical music experts do it free, or at a much-reduced cost.
A great example, said Willis, is a former BYU football star who is writing up to three columns a week. It is getting 500,000 hits, and so is very popular.
But free content is not the way to go, said Conway.
“We have a formula,” said Conway. Covering public policy, the Legislature and government “are the main part” of Tribune coverage, she said. “We send an army up to the Legislature.”
“We will stay independent, stay strong and steady,” she added.
Story selection will change at the DN and the other electronic outlets, said Willis. Yes, important stories will be covered, but in more depth, with more context. Under the new convergence newsrooms, experts will be developed and teams of reporters quickly sent to overpower a story, all angles. And stories editors believe are important today, won't be lost tomorrow. But there will be greater resources pointed to those stories in days and weeks to come.
That, by the way, is how the Los Angles Times won so many Pulitzer Prizes, Willis said.
While Tribune print subscriptions have dropped, Conway believes that is slowing and, perhaps, peaked. Better times are ahead.
KSL-TV, long the clear leader in news viewers, was tied with KUTV 2 at the critical 10 p.m. slot in recent ratings. And changes in news management came the first of this year.
Things are, and will continue, to change at the DN, KSL-TV, radio and their online products, said Willis. Not only will that be good journalism, it will be financially successful and reach an every growing group of readers, viewers and listeners, even if, at some point, there is not a printed Deseret News.