July 26, 2014

The Ups and Downs of Mormon Media

by Jacob Hodgen

Amidst fierce competition, the Deseret News has a brave new plan to save their paper. But at what cost?.

It has been one heck of a year for Utah’s longest-running newspaper.

The Deseret News just announced it would soon be jettisoning 43% of its staff, including its entire design department. Spinning the move as a bold step and part of a plan to “lead and innovate” and to “become a leader in the industry and a model for change,” the Deseret News certainly isn’t the only paper to have experienced relevancy issues in a culture rapidly shifting away from conventional models of print journalism.

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However, breaking up is hard to do, and the DN’s attempt to transition to the brave new world of New Media has been a messy one.

Within one day of announcing their layoffs, the DN set off yet another firestorm when it revealed that it was now enlisting the help of Michael Purdy as a special correspondent. The SL Tribune was quick to point out that Purdy, in addition to his brand new reporter duties with the DN, just so happens to also be an official public relations agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is no secret that the Desert Media group, which consists of the Deseret News, KSL, and Deseret Book, is owned by the LDS Church. However, deputizing the church’s own ad men and calling them reporters is a bold move indeed and seems to reflect the paper’s trend towards media hyper specialization.

In the same way that Fox News and MSNBC have managed to thrive in the cable news business by dropping any pretense of neutrality and catering to a particular audience, part of the DN’s plan to “lead and innovate” seems to be to focus even more on its Mormon fan base.

Part of the transition involved the stepping down of short-lived Editor Joe Cannon, who had only held the position for three years. Under Cannon’s leadership, the DN became “one of the fastest-growing newspapers in the country,” but it turns out that this was mostly due to web traffic, which explains the decision to go for broke with the online version of their paper.

The DN isn’t the only long-running newspaper to turn its focus away from print publication. In May of last year, The Christian Science Monitor published its final hard copy and then went exclusively to electronic publication. By focusing on paperless publication, The CSM reports it hopes to quintuple its online readership in five years.

Even if they don’t fully meet their goals, it’s numbers like these that put butterflies in the stomachs of overhead-wary newspaper publishers.

The DN explains it plans to create an online group of “hundreds of contributors and thought leaders” from across the country with something called “Deseret Connect.” The project will enlist citizen journalists who will be controlled by an editorial advisory board from the paper. Considering the heat they already took this summer after their previous advisory board admitted to covering up a sex scandal for House Majority leader and eminent Mormon Kevin Garn for years, a focus on a religiously loyal audience that doesn’t care about those type of things is probably a pretty good idea.

In 2009, Mark Willes, the former DN publisher and nephew of the late Gordon B. Hinckley, claimed that he was “wary of the trustworthiness of the internet” and said he believed newspapers were the “bulwark of liberty.”

For 2010 and beyond, the new Deseret News staff had better hope that he was wrong. §

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