Deseret News Tries A Controlled Burn To Save Itself

Stack Of Newspapers On Table

Last week, one of the nation’s top dailies imploded its structure to go “digital first.” Today, the Deseret News, a much smaller paper in Salt Lake City, Utah, is following USA Today with an equally radical reorganization but very different emphasis — keeping the daily newspaper alive. The DN is slashing its staff levels by 43 percent and merging newsrooms with sibling KSL TV and Radio; both are owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’s Deseret Management. That company’s head is no stranger to trying to shake up newsrooms: Mark Willes, the former controversial publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

The paper’s own coverage says as much as the changes outlined there, from the lead — “The Deseret News announced today work force reductions and unveiled a plan to refocus the quality and reach of its product.” — to listing digital fifth in a five-part plan. Unlike USAT, where the emphasis is on changing from a print-centric organization, Deseret News CEO Clark Gilbert missed just about every opportunity to show his new organization in a cross-platform light. Also unlike the Gannett (NYSE: GCI) flagship, the publisher and editor are leaving amidst the shakeup.

For instance, despite the 43 percent staff cuts (57 full-time, 28 part-time) Gilbert claims the newly combined newsroom will be the area’s largest — but doesn’t mention being better positioned to serve readers with breaking news or the usual bits we hear as justification for digital-age shakeups. The creation of Deseret Connect — essentially a freelance network — mentions writers and editors but not connecting local blogs or the like. All we know about digital’s role is this has to be done because technology advances are killing papers — and the new digital team is “cutting edge.”

The changes in content emphasis for in-depth coverage focus on values that Gilbert says fit the marketplace and are in keeping for a company owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the family; financial responsibility; excellence in education; care for the needy; values in the media; and faith in the community. Playing down the digital-mobile emphasis in many newsrooms making changes may also reflect the marketplace, or the perception that their readers care more about the steady influence of a print paper than apps and sites.

The main reason is likely the way Willes set up the companies after his arrival in spring 2009, transforming them into “real” businesses and separating out the digital operations into a new company, Deseret Digital Media, with the notion that dividing the operations as the best way to succeed. He brought in Gilbert this past May to run the paper and the digital operations this May, signaling the end of the current leadership. The result sounds like a disconnect between the two goals, a continuing daily paper and a successful digital media business.

Competitor Salt Lake Tribune has more background.

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