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Bucking trends, Utah's Mormon neewspaper sees gains

A dozen years ago, the publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune walked into a board meeting at the city's other newspaper, the Deseret News, and offered a blunt assessment.

"This town isn't big enough for two newspapers," said Dominic Welch, now retired from running Utah's largest daily, circulation around 120,000.

Welch finished by telling Deseret News executives "it ain't going to be you," according to their account.

Welch said he doesn't recall making the last half of the statement, but he said his prediction is more timely now with many big-city newspapers getting slaughtered financially. And notably, he believes the Deseret News, with a weekday circulation of nearly 74,000, eventually could be this city's last paper standing because of the commitment and deep pockets of its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The story is there's going to be one paper. It's happening around the country," Welch said. "My guess is it's going to be the Deseret News. They can survive anything."

Veteran newspaper analyst John Morton said The Salt Lake Tribune remains viable but that the Deseret News stands out for being practically bulletproof.

"The Deseret News will survive because the church wants it to," said Morton, president of media consulting firm Morton Research Inc. of Silver Spring, Md.

The News is among a select few metro or national papers that lately have posted circulation gains and something of a curious case.

Joe Cannon, now in his third year as editor, set out to make the newspaper and its Web site more appealing to Mormon readers. The effort already has made the paper's Web site unusually active for a news organization its size, with 17 million page views a month. Visitors tend to linger, and half of them are from outside Utah, affirming Cannon's strategy even as online advertising revenues remain marginal.

His aim is to reach out to "a very large Mormon diaspora across the country" that "puts us into a much larger pond," said Cannon, who was on the board of the Deseret News for a decade before taking over as editor.

Cannon is a lawyer from a well-connected family in Utah. Most recently, he was chairman of the Utah Republican Party for four years until 2006. His grandfather and great-grandfather were among editors of the Deseret News.

Cannon said by making news coverage "more Mormon" he means appealing to a market niche larger than Utah instead of just a circulation territory. It's a subtle shift in coverage and "tone" that has caused some newsroom dissent, as Cannon and staffers debate what it means. Cannon said he defines it as catering to Mormon interests on select stories and themes. A new weekly section called the Mormon Times, he says, is hugely popular.

The newspaper would never run a story on the economy with a "here's-the-Mormon-implication," Cannon said. But the paper ramped up coverage of California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriages, after the church and its members came under public attack from gay-rights groups for contributing money and manpower in the campaign. Stories on the backlash that took many Mormons by surprise invariably made the top 10 hits for online readers, driving editorial decisions for more coverage.

The more-Mormon strategy appears to be boosting reader interest.

"I totally agree with the direction they're taking," said W. Dean Singleton, publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.

"It helps ensure two newspapers can survive in Salt Lake City."

Singleton is chief executive and vice chairman of the Denver-based newspaper company MediaNews Group Inc. and chairman of The Associated Press, a not-for-profit cooperative owned by its member news organizations.

The Salt Lake Tribune still is profitable, and together with the Deseret News is expected to remain on the short list of two-newspaper towns. It's a shrinking list, with Denver and Seattle among the most recent dropouts. Morton said that only about 18 U.S. cities or towns have truly competitive newspapers, leaving about 1,420 dailies to their own markets.

A joint operating agreement combined The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News' printing, advertising and circulation operations in 1952, but they remain scrappy competitors. Morton said a decided lack of competition characterizes other JOA towns.

The Deseret News has lately proved its mettle. It was third on a list of major U.S. newspapers that saw circulation gains for the most recent audit period, ending Sept. 30, with a 2 percent gain, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. It said paid readership for The Salt Lake Tribune in the same six-month period declined by 5 percent.

In all, only 21 of the newspapers with more than 50,000 weekday circulation posted gains. The list was headed by the Wisconsin State Journal, up 10.6 percent, and The Times of Trenton (N.J.) at 5.3 percent, according to the ABC's latest figures.

Most of the other papers on the list, including USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, saw gains of fractions of 1 percent.

Overall, U.S. weekday circulations are in decline by 4.6 percent in an ABC survey last year of 507 newspapers.

Small newspapers are generally holding their own because of unique demographics, but larger dailies, which are suffering more from the loss of once-lucrative classified ads to digital competitors, are in a "harrowing" near-free fall, according to the Pew Project's State of the News Media 2009.

The report also blamed the big-city papers' plight on the real estate crash, a collapse in employment advertising, huge reverses in the auto industry and consolidation and bankruptcies in retail.

The Deseret News is seeing lower advertising revenue and has made some staff cuts and traded larger deductibles for a cheaper health insurance plan. But it has no crushing debt, some cash reserves and owns an office tower free and clear.

The church, moreover, recently tightened its control of the Deseret News and other business subsidiaries that take in Utah's leading broadcast stations, KSL Radio and KSL-TV.

The Deseret Management Corp., a holding company for commercial enterprises ranging from restaurants to real estate, replaced the boards of directors of the subsidiaries with smaller boards more firmly in control of Mark H. Willes, who was chief of Times Mirror Co. and later publisher of its Los Angeles Times before taking over as president and chief executive of Deseret Management last month.

The Deseret News will have to answer more for its bottom line under the arrangement. Cannon said it shouldn't make for a huge change.

"We've always felt we've been concerned about the bottom line," he said.

Notably, the Deseret News increased circulation to 73,868 on weekdays by January as The Salt Lake Tribune declined, according to internal figures from Salt Lake's Newspaper Agency Corp.

"I guess he's doing something right," Welch said.