Guest opinion: Reflections on the newspaper business

Sometimes a stunning announcement, even when it is inevitable and probably makes sense from a business standpoint, is still a little hard to process.

I’m talking about the announcements from the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune about the future of their print editions, whose futures aren’t exactly bright.

From 1988 to 2000 I was the Marketing Director for the Deseret News. Prior to that, I had been the Marketing Director for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden. I loved my jobs, it was fun and even though I wasn’t a journalist, I was in on what was happening to compete for and cover the news. And besides, we were making boatloads of money…no competition yet from the Internet, just TV and radio and nascent direct mail. Even cable TV was in its infancy.

It’s true, ink does get in your blood. Trouble is, with 25-plus years of disruption in the newspaper business that ink is running mighty thin.

The day I walked into the Deseret News, my boss, the great Jim Mortimer, the publisher, told me that one of my jobs was to help take the Deseret News to morning publication.

All of us in middle management were paying attention to a book entitled, Death in the Afternoon: America’s Newspaper Giants Struggle for Survival that was published in 1984. The author had cleverly borrowed Ernest Hemingway’s novel entitled, Death in the Afternoon published in 1932 about bullfighting.

It was a fun and insightful read about America’s scions of newspapering but it also made a salient point: afternoon newspapers were dying. Why? Because of time. The world was disrupting, people were busier than ever and didn’t have time to read their traditional newspaper in the evening. Morning publication, like our large rival, the Tribune with twice the circulation, was where it was at.

Trouble was, it just wasn’t that easy to make the switch. The Joint Operating Agreement, JOA, put in place between the two newspapers in 1952, meant they shared joint advertising, production and circulation operations, thus enjoying economies of scale but competing like crazy from a news and editorial standpoint.

When I was there, the JOA and its company, the Newspaper Agency Corporation, was managed by The Salt Lake Tribune. The Deseret News was the junior partner receiving 49% of the profits while the Tribune enjoyed 51%. The morning switch was discussed at management meetings but the Tribune blocked our effort.

And given the ownership of the Deseret News, The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints, our board wasn’t eager to get into a public fight, even a lawsuit, to assert its rights to switch to morning, which a lot of readers will understand. So a delaying tactic was employed — research!

I led several years of various research projects eating up thousands of dollars to determine what would happen if the Deseret News switched to morning. Would we lose or gain readers? The answer was obvious to me, we would gain readers but it would take time for them to get used to getting their paper in the morning.

Eventually, in about 1999, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley removed the General Authorities from the boards of the church-owned companies and brought in business people.

This was exciting for us in middle management because now we could “get tough” with The Tribune and assert our rights. Katy bar the door, so what if a lawsuit ensued?

It was at this time that I left the paper for greener fields and circumstances at the Tribune with its ownership changed. The new owner, Dean Singleton, came in and quickly made the switch to morning happen. The Deseret News made the switch. This would strengthen both newspapers.

In the ensuing years, the Deseret News became the senior partner of the JOA when the deal was renegotiated. Even though I was long gone, that brought a smile to my face.

There’s one other thing to note in this tale of woe and that is about the Internet and the disruption it has caused in the print newspaper business.

We were anxious to beat the Tribune in getting our website up first, so we pulled out all the stops and did it. Once it was up and this new age of information was ushered in we all sat around patting ourselves on the back and said, “Gee, aren’t we cool? We beat the Tribune. Okay, so we just gave away our content for free but, hey, someone will figure out how to make money.” Yeah, right.

Steve Handy is a communications consultant and a member of the Utah House of Representatives from District 16 in Layton.