Analysis: A new era begins for Utah’s two newspapers

Nearly 70 years of journalistic tradition in Utah closes at the end of this year with the dissolution of the joint operating agreement (JOA) between the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune. Beginning Jan. 1, the two newspapers will be entirely on their own — to sink, survive or thrive in the new, ultra-competitive digital communications world.

While always competing vigorously in their news operations, the two newspapers have been partners in the advertising, production and distribution of both newspapers since 1952. That arrangement has allowed the Salt Lake City/Utah market to have two strong, competitive newspapers, a luxury few regional markets in the United States still enjoy.

A number of factors have contributed to the death of the JOA, but the biggest one has been the rise of digital news, delivered instantly over the Internet. With the printed editions of both newspapers in severe decline, much less need exists for a large production facility, massive printing presses, and hundreds of carriers to deliver the papers each morning.

As a former Deseret News editor, I spent many years working within the confines of the JOA, which was often quite constricting on the business side of the enterprise. The papers had some fairly bitter fights in past years and I have no nostalgia over the JOA being dissolved. Still, the JOA did allow both papers to be very profitable back in the heyday of newspapers.

With the termination of the JOA, the Tribune has already announced it will end its daily print product and instead publish a printed newspaper only once a week. The Deseret News has indicated it will announce its future publishing plans on Tuesday.

From a public policy perspective, the anti-trust exemption granted to newspapers to combine their advertising and production functions no longer makes sense. JOAs were allowed by federal law to create economies of scale so that two newspapers could survive in a market.

But with the Internet and digital communications technologies disrupting the news industry, and the number of on-line news organizations proliferating, there is no longer a danger of one newspaper exerting monopolistic control of news and advertising in any particular market.

The Tribune and Deseret News enter this new era with very different operating models. The Tribune is now a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization. It will sell advertising and subscriptions, but will also depend on charitable donations and philanthropic gifts.

The Deseret News is part of a portfolio of for-profit media enterprises operated by Deseret Management Corporation, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With its TV, radio and digital partners, it enjoys economies of scale in advertising, and in the gathering and distribution of news and information via its various channels and its combined newsroom.

The two newspapers will now mostly compete on-line, with their respective web sites and a variety of newsletters, all amplified on social media. Both newspapers will chase breaking news, but will especially emphasize in-depth coverage of important topics. The Deseret News in recent years has broadened its reach beyond Utah, covering national and international news topics in the context of faith, family and wholesome values.

With the end of the JOA, we can expect continued strong competition between the two news operations, which will be healthy for Utah. Their significantly different editorial voices also give Utahns a distinct choice.

Personally, I wish both papers well. Having two solid news organizations in the state is another demonstration of the vibrancy of Utah.