Webb’s Wrap: Will Salt Lake Tribune go all digital?

Media Watch. What may be Utah’s oldest business partnership – between two competitors, no less – is expected to finally expire at the close of this year. And the state’s media landscape will never be the same.

It might mean the end of the Salt Lake Tribune’s printed newspapers, although it’s possible a Sunday print edition could survive. For the Tribune, it will certainly mean a much stronger focus on electronic delivery of news in all digital forms – audio, video and text.

The joint operating agreement between the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune has been in force in one form or another, including during some rocky times, since 1952 – a remarkable 68 years. What other business partnership has lasted that long?

The agreement allowed the two newspapers to combine printing, advertising and distribution processes, providing significant economies of scale and essentially creating a newspaper monopoly. Such arrangements were challenged as violating provisions of federal anti-trust laws, but Congress exempted newspapers from those provisions in 1970. That Newspaper Preservation Act was almost a license to print money, and for many decades both Salt Lake newspapers were very profitable.

But the law did help preserve two good, competitive newspapers in the Salt Lake market. Very few markets across the country have two competitive newspapers.

As we all know, the Internet completely disrupted the newspaper industry and all communications businesses, allowing anyone to become a publisher, and making news and information available from millions of sources, across the world, mostly free. Advertising revenue left newspapers and went to Google, Facebook, Craigslist and many digital upstarts, and the newspaper revenue base collapsed.

Many newspapers went broke, many cut staff and expenses, and the result is a vastly downsized newspaper industry.

So, today, with easy digital distribution of news and many news outlets, little justification exists to maintain the old joint operating agreement between the Deseret News and the Tribune. And it is very expensive to print and distribute news the old-fashioned way – using big sheets of paper and delivery personnel (the paper boy is long gone). With the Deseret News now owning the printing presses and distribution system, it makes sense for the Tribune to go mostly digital.

It’s only dinosaurs like me who still enjoy flipping through the well-designed pages of a printed newspaper, finding news and information I didn’t know I was interested in until I happened on it. The serendipity factor.

Will the Tribune be successful as a mostly digital publication? It will be difficult, but it may be a winning strategy. The newspaper will shed a lot of expense.

The Deseret News is better positioned because it is part of a family of broadcast, print and digital news and information outlets that are synergistic and provide economies of scale. One day, however, it may also need to scrap the print edition.

It’s likely the Tribune will need to focus its reporting on selected topics like sports and government and politics. Gone are the days when mid-sized newspapers could cover every aspect of society. I remember when the Deseret News had full-time music, TV and movie critics, not to mention a dozen or so people covering different agencies and levels of government and politics. The urban affairs reporter and social services reporter no long exist, and the several rural bureaus with part-time writers are long gone.

Utah is lucky to have two good, competitive daily newspapers in the capital city. May they continue well into the future.

Parting shot. Well, at least the Utah Jazz put up a fight at the end. They didn’t quit. I’ve heard from reliable sources that the 2021 season likely won’t start in December as some are hoping. But a January or February start date is more likely.

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