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November 26, 2014

What the Christian Science Monitor Can Teach the Mormon Deseret News: The Old Church of News & Stated Religion

Journalism. Values. Put those two words together, and you could have a conference snorefest or a lively debate, though I’ve got to admit the odds lean to the former.

In Utah, as the restructuring Deseret News goes forward, “values” is one of the main drivers, found in releases, interviews and on the Deseret News’ websites. The new orientation is giving lots of people hives, including to-the-point questioning of journalistic practice raised by Joel Campbell, the News’ “Mormon Media Observer” columnist who just announced that he’s taking his column to the rival Salt Lake Tribune. He’s been joined by Lee Davidson, a longtime News D.C. bureau chief, and word is that more defections are in the offing.

“Values” permeates the paper’s own communication about its changes, beginning with a new mission statement enunciated by Mark Willes, CEO of the parent Deseret Management Company, in January (“We are trusted voices of light and knowledge, reaching hundreds of millions of people worldwide…These are universal values. You don’t have to be a church person to say civility is a good thing. This is consistent with the values not only of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but with all people of good will.”

“They [readers] crave and deserve insight, context and thought leadership relevant to the events and issues of the day from sources they trust,” said Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of Deseret News, in describing recent staff cuts and reorganization. “The values we champion are time-honored concepts that belong to people of goodwill around the world”.

Want to write for Deseret Connect, the company’s new community-generated blog site. Among the qualifications, “We seek individuals committed to values and quality who will raise their voice with ours to champion light and knowledge”.

If those seem more like political talking points than journalistic principle, Gilbert has also laid down the six values that will drive the new business and journalism (Newsonomics: “Out of the Western Sky, It’s a Worldwide, Mormon Vertical!“):

  • the family
  • financial responsibility
  • excellence in education
  • care for the needy
  • values in the media
  • faith in the community

To many of us those seem more like coverage priorities than values, but given both the Deseret Management Company’s ownership (the Church of Latter-Day Saints)  and its new audience targeting – Mormons worldwide, in addition to Utah residents, that values push takes on more complicated coloring.

I turned to John Yemma, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, figuring that the Monitor has had more than a hundred years to figure out how its religious origins and affiliations (it is still owned by the Christian Science Publishing Society) affected its journalism. How does the Monitor put together its values and its journalism?

“For 102 years, since Mary Baker Eddy started the paper, we’ve been a normal newspaper, down the middle,” says Yemma, who served as a deputy managing editor at the Boston Globe before coming to the Monitor two years ago. “Monitor values are journalism values,” he says ticking off those that often spill out as editors try to describe what they’re trying to do: “fairness, balance, understanding the world, having a modicum of hope.

“We attempt to explain world news to those who care about solutions, for people who don’t just want to sit there with their mouths agape,” he explains, setting out the Monitor’s positioning in the digital world; the “paper” went digital-first, flipping the switch in late 2008, and retaining a single weekly print magazine. “Our readers want to know how to live with Islam in America.”

Yemma is among those unclear about the new Deseret push. “I don’t know what they mean by values,” he says. How the new operation interprets those values is the key, he says. It won’t work if “it’s finger-wagging. If it’s done well, it’s inclusive.”

About half of the Monitor’s news staff is made up of Christian Scientists, says Yemma, who is of the faith. He notes that when a job opens up, the posting is first made to the church’s website, but it’s often hard to find “a qualified Christian Scientist,” especially if, for instance, the job of a Moscow correspondent requires Russian language skills and foreign reporting experience.

As to content, he notes that religiously advocative content is restricted to a single, daily column.

Somehow, the Monitor has managed for more than a century to straddle its religious and journalistic instincts, and its readers have benefited.

Can the new Deseret News do the same? Can it get beyond its own talking points — and talk journalism?

With the staff defections and p.r-disguised-as-news coverage of its own layoffs, the new Deseret is stumbling out of the gate. But it’s a long race.

In Utah, that’s lots of understandable consternation about the Deseret News shuffle. Yes, the paper’s had a mixed history in divorcing it religious or political beliefs from its journalism, but its newsroom of 200 has been an important force in bringing news to that very light of day. In Salt Lake, it does have a competitor, the sometimes feisty Salt Lake Tribune, owned by Media News Group, though that paper has cut back its own reporting as its parent moved into bankruptcy and made its own staff cuts. In the wake of the Deseret staff cut, MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton has pledged to retain staff and offer spirited competition. City Weekly also offers a lively, local alternative, but of course, not a long reporting bench.

Observers of the Deseret reorg raise good questions about how the journalism of the new combined operation may be steered, driven more by the six enunciated values than the good old-fashioned ones John Yemma ticks off. They point to the elimination of the Deseret News’ publisher and editor in the reorg and the fact that 85 full- and part-time positions are gone, as additional causes of concern.

For Clark Gilbert and Mark Willes, there’s clearly a new to-do to add to the top of their list. As they figure out how to structure a combined newspaper/TV operation, make it profitable,  expand its reach and harness the Twitters, Facebooks and Foursquares of today and tomorrow, they’ve got to answer some basic journalistic questions.

  • What marching orders exactly are their journalists, newly digital multi-taskers or remaining old-timers, being given?
  • If stories don’t fit neatly within those six values – or contradict them in some way – what’s an editor and reporter to do? How do you cover those that don’t show faith in the community or business responsibility? How do you cover City Hall?
  • In targeting and better serving Mormon audiences, in state and worldwide, what does that mean for both non-Mormons and Mormons who want to know their news is just that, news, not content filtered through a set of set of religiously based sieves?
  • Is the Deseret News willing to be held to the Monitor’s values — fairness, balance, integrity — giving its communities and readers a standard they can use to judge the new operation?

The Deseret news revolution is one that bears watching – many logical concepts are begin tested there (Newsonomics: Mormons, Moguls and Murdoch: Focus on the Innovations, not the Innovators,”). Utahns – and all of us – though deserve and require unfettered news; the Deseret News’ new news must meet that bar as well.

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