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October 21, 2014

Out of the Western Sky: It's a Hyperlocal, Worldwide Mormon Vertical!

It’s an original recipe.

Start with several cups full of daily newspaper and broadcast types. Take a teaspoon of the Christian Science Monitor. Add in a dash of HuffPo spice. Ladle a tablespoon of Demand Media into the mix. Borrow ingredients from two Washington D.C. news companies, the 143-year-old Washington Post and the one-month-old TBD.com. Now, into the hyperchange of late 2010, let it shred, dice, slice, puree, whir and, finally, blend.

That, in short, looks to be the new recipe in Salt Lake City. There, today, the Deseret News pulled together many of the innovations of the day in the news business and redefined the company, its workforce and its products in one sweeping move.

The immediate news that caught the attention of the news world: The Deseret News — one of two dailies in the market, in a joint operating agreement (shared business operations) with the MediaNews-owned Tribune — is cutting 43% of its newsroom, or 57 full-time and 28 part-time employees. That’s big news in and of itself, but in this case, only part of a much larger story.

We have to look at the Deseret News announcement in the context of another, USA Today’s (“It’s (About) Time for the Next Re-Invention“) last Friday. The news business is now blowing itself up, claiming radical reinvention, acknowledging that experimentation around the edges won’t get the job done.

Won’t the cuts mean lots less news coverage?

“That’s an Old Media world view,” Deseret News President and CEO Clark Gilbert told me today. “We have access to more journalists, hyperlocal contributors, national sports figures than ever before.”

I first met Gilbert in the mid-’90s, when, as a Harvard prof, he talked to Knight Ridder editors and publishers about creative disruption, the then-vaguely academic-seeming phenomenon that would wreak havoc in the news business. Gilbert got the opportunity to apply his intellectual mettle to the pedal of news management when he assumed his job in Salt Lake City a year ago. Among advisors on his board is Clayton Christensen, the oft-quoted and but-too-little-applied author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” and “The Innovator’s Description.” Newspaper company CEOs long discussed his work, but their companies have become textbook examples of what he preached, making moves that were too little, too late to meet the challenge of epochal disruption.

So let’s take a quick tour of the new Deseret recipe:

  • Start with several cups full of daily newspaper and broadcast types. The newspaper had about 200 staff positions. Now, the newspaper staff and the news staffs of KSL TV and KSL Radio, all owned by Deseret Management Co., a for-profit business arm of the Mormon Church, are part of a single, combined media company. Gilbert says the new size of the combined staff is “north of 200,” but doesn’t want to disclose the actual number, given competitive concerns. Also tossed into the mixer is the company’s digital team, which has been working across print and broadcast for the past year.
  • Take a teaspoon of the Christian Science Monitor. The Monitor has long served as a example of a religiously based journalistic organization, one that applied its otherworldly beliefs to the here and now. The new Deseret plan takes that idea, and intends to feed it the rocket juice of digital age, allowing its “values-based” journalism to carry to every corner of the earth, via the Internet. In fact, Gilbert lays out six values — the family, financial responsibility, excellence in education, care for the needy, values in the media, faith in the community –  that the journalism the company will now focus on, and the word “values” pops up repeatedly both as “mission” and strategy. People in Salt Lake — now a majority non-LDS community — will tell you (KUER’s “The Future of Utah Journalism,”) that the Deseret News has long had one foot in the church camp and one foot in traditional daily journalism, tilting one way or the other, depending on the story, the editor and the pressures of the day. Now, it appears, the company is unambiguously grasping its faith, injecting into the very fiber of its news operations. Mark Willes (yes, the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, of the pre-Zell, Staples Center ad debacle period), has headed the parent Deseret Management Company since February, 2009, bringing in the values-based media strategy. Willes brought in Gilbert, the intellectual yin to Willes yang. Gilbert has brought in Christensen, among other national advisors. All three — Willes, Gilbert and Christensen — share the Mormon faith.
  • Add in a dash of HuffPo spice. Vai Sikahema, sports director and anchor for NBC10 Philadelphia, host of the “Vai & Gonzo Show” on ESPN Philadelphia Radio and “Tongan Warrior”, is prototypical of the kind of high-profile writer that is an increasingly part of the new Deseret mix. That’s a page borrowed from the Huffington Post: get high-profile celebrities, who will write for nothing and bring their fans with them. Gilbert says you can expect many more Sikahemas, drawn from around the world.
  • Ladle a tablespoon of Demand Media into the mix. Deseret Connect is the new take on Demand’s Pro-Am business model. Already, Gilbert says the company has received more than 100 applications for the new user-gen service. “It won’t be their main source of income,” says Gilbert. The company is seeking “high-quality people, who fit the values and will be edited,” to write about its key topics. How many?: Maybe as many as a thousand within a year.
  • Borrow ingredients from two Washington D.C. news companies, the 143-year-old Washington Post and the one-month-old TBD.com. From the Post, Gilbert takes the ability to be two things, simultaneously, a worldwide political news leader and a company plying the waters of hyperlocal; he believes that in the digital age, you can difference faces for differing audiences. In this case, you can be both a worldwide Mormon vertical — serving a potential readership among 13 million co-religionists — and the newspaper of Salt Lake’s and Utah’s smaller communities.

Deseret clearly is following the same path as the brand-new TBD, as well, pooling text, video and audio skills. In reorganizing those skills sets, Gilbert is injecting a newly named staff of Rewrite/First Responders. That group, maybe a third of the new “integrated newsroom” of about 100, will work on both sides of the “field reporters.” The Rewrite/First Responders staff comes from a diverse digital/broadcast/wire background, and they form the hub expected to produce the kind of content in the best form (story, post, video segment, podcast) through the news day. In the moving arithmetic, it’s important to note that only about half of the combined newspaper and broadcast staffs move into the “integrated” operation. The others — roughly another 100 or so — stay in more traditional (“enterprise, investigative”) roles. Out of these moves, and through greater use of cross-trained (video-shooting reporters, text-writing photographers), Gilbert aims to reduce duplication of staff and focus more resources — Pro and Am — on stories deserving greater coverage.

The overall new math: “Our net news coverage goes up.”

  • Shred, dice, slice, puree, whir and, finally, blend. And it’s all something of a blur, especially the view from outside the unique culture of Utah.  The deep talk of values and mission is enough to give an old newsie hives, and we’ll all have to watch to see how much “news” coverage is skewed by religious beliefs. In addition, though, the Deseret media company is a creation that immediately emerges as a new multi-media, multi-platform, Pro-Am- hugging, cost-cutting model. New NAA chairman Mark Contreras, a Scripps senior vice-president, was quick to laud it as one to watch: “The Deseret News team has showed courageous leadership, not just to make the difficult decisions around costs, but to define a broader and more digitally-focused future”. With the USA Today and Deseret announcements of the past five days, expect 2011 to be a year of fire-breathing change.

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