Some say Michael Kearns is a visionary. Others say he's just seeing things. He'll let the readers decide.
The Salt Lake Observer, a fortnightly newspaper aimed at the affluent and educated, will return the Kearns name to its traditional place in Utah journalism when the first issue hits newsstands in April."It's definitely smart people that we're going after, but this isn't an elitist thing at all," Kearns said. "We're starting this because we want something to read."
With two 16-page broadsheet sections, full-color, front-page art and veteran reporter Karl Cates as editor, the Observer will be one of the most ambitious - and admittedly risky - undertakings in Utah publishing in years.
The Observer is the brainchild of the oddest of couples.
A Mencken-quoting, nattily dressed ex-New Yorker, Kearns has enlisted the financial backing of Richard Howa, the Harley-riding, cowboy boot-wearing, iconoclastic president of Howa Construction.
"That's the lure: the risk," said Howa. "What can we do that's never been done here before? This is it."
Kearns is a scion of Salt Lake's famed Kearns publishing family, the founders of The Salt Lake Tribune. Michael's grandfather sold his stake in the Tribune in 1952. Today, Michael's cousin, Jim Kearns, owns the family's only significant stake in the company.
"I would not do this if my family still owned the Tribune," Kearns said. "Call it loyalty."
Kearns notes The Tribune began as an anti-Mormon paper, but the Observer has no such agenda. Kearns, Howa and Cates are not members of the predominant faith, but "this isn't a Mormon-bashing thing at all," Kearns said. "We want everybody who's smart to read us."
Kearns, 42, is no stranger to new publishing ventures. He started his first magazine, a Bay Area lifestyle publication, at 24. A year later, he sold out and tried unsuccessfully to get financing for a men's fashion magazine he hoped would compete with GQ.
Kearns eventually went to work for Conde Nast Publishers, returning to Utah a year ago to work at Salt Lake City magazine as vice president of publishing operations.
Two months ago, he left the magazine trailing a wake of controversy. Kearns says he left to pursue the Observer. Some at the magazine say he jumped instead of waiting to be pushed.
"He seems to have convinced this Howa guy that this is a great idea," Salt Lake City magazine editor Barry Scholl said. "Let's just say I think it's going to be a tremendous challenge for him."
Kearns plans an aggressive distribution strategy to target his core audience: the upwardly mobile segment of the Wasatch Front. The first issue of the Observer will be mailed free of charge to a selected list of well-to-do Salt Lake residents.
Although the cost of mailing the publication will be high, "You've got to pay to play," Kearns said.
The paper will be available through subscription, on newsstands and in black distribution boxes throughout the Salt Lake Valley.