Salt Lake City’s two newspapers are taking very different paths

I’m an old duffer, so I’ve always liked turning the pages of a genuine paper newspaper — despite the ink stains. I enjoy the serendipity of discovering things I didn’t know I was interested as I thumb through the various sections. I used to even like perusing the classified ads before they disappeared. 

So, it was with somewhat mixed emotions that I acknowledged the decisions that both the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune will go mostly digital at the first of the year – even though it was inevitable.

Journalism isn’t ink and paper. It’s insightful writing and editing that enlightens, informs, entertains and illuminates the world around us — all attractively displayed for ease of reading and viewing. Paper has many limitations – space constraints, distribution restraints and, especially, the inability to instantly link to more information, to explore a topic or issue in more depth.

In the digital world, all of those restrictions are gone except, of course, the limitations of human imagination and writing ability. 

The announcements about going mostly digital, combined with the end of the joint operating agreement, mean the Tribune and Deseret News will be truly independent, each making its own way in the brave new communications world.

And I expect the two publishing operations will diverge quite dramatically in the next months and years in their finances, editorial philosophies, and especially in their visions, scope and ambitions going forward.

The Tribune, it appears, simply wants to be a top-notch local/regional publication that offers, in their words in a press release, “unmatched reporting on state and local governments, politics, the environment, education, religion, criminal justice, local sports, and the great variety of such stories about the people and places that make Utah special.”

The Deseret News, by contrast, has a much bigger vision that extends far beyond Utah. In addition to delivering in-depth local journalism and commentary on the same topics as the Tribune, the Deseret News wants to provide news and information in the context of “faith, family and wholesome values” to readers across the country and the world.

That includes, of course, the 16 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other like-minded people. That’s a very big market that can be readily reached via the Internet and the variety of communications channels imbedded within it.

Deseret News editors believe people across the country and the world will respond to in-depth journalism and commentary from a values-based, family-oriented perspective. “Being a national voice from the heart of America gives us a real advantage,” said Editor Doug Wilks in a press release.

“Our goals are audacious and our position unique,” said Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson. “We embrace founding principles as the best way to heal the country, foster freedom, promote justice and erase inequality.” . . . From our unique vantage point, we will provide a window into the principles, policies and values that create thriving communities.”

That’s a very ambitious vision, and it won’t be easy to pull it off.

Meanwhile, the financial models of the two publications will also diverge dramatically. One of the downsides of digital publishing is that advertisers have not been as willing to pay the same prices for digital advertisements as they did for print. The loss of classified advertising was particularly devastating for newspapers. And, of course, newspapers (or whatever we will now call them) are in stiff competition with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. 

Clearly, the Tribune has already concluded it can’t be successful on advertising and subscription revenue alone. That’s why it turned itself into a non-profit so it can accept tax-deductible donations and philanthropic contributions. From what I understand, Publisher Paul Huntsman has been quite successful in raising money. But how sustainable that model is over the long term has yet to be determined.

I assume the Deseret News plans to rely on advertising and subscription revenue. It enjoys the significant advantage of being part of a media portfolio that includes TV, radio, book publishing and very strong digital/on-line operations. (Note: is now part of the portfolio.)

Some observers have noted that the Deseret News owner, The Church of Jesus Christ, has deep pockets. However, years ago when I was in Deseret News management, there existed an ironclad rule that the Deseret News had to stand on its own and there would be no subsidies from other entities. I do not know the status of that rule today.

Finally, there is the matter of editorial philosophy or ideology. The Deseret News clearly intends to provide commentary and institutional editorials through the context and prism of “faith, family and values.” That signifies a generally conservative editorial philosophy with a lot of writing about values and principles.

The Tribune, by contrast, has taken a very traditional liberal approach in its commentary and institutional editorials, appealing strongly to urban Democrats.

Utahns have a very clear choice. Or, they can, like me, subscribe to both. Utah remains very lucky to have two strong, competitive media voices in the state.