Twitter  Quartz found an unlikely inspiration for its relaunched homepage: The email newsletter.  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Religious but not Mormon? The church-owned Deseret News considers you a growth market

With yesterday’s official launch of its online national edition, the Salt Lake City newspaper-turned-digital-media-company is continuing to aim for a national audience.

The Deseret News is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but you might not detect its Mormon roots from looking at the outlet’s national site — officially came out of beta yesterday — which focuses on the self-proclaimed values of family and faith. Even in its faith section, which includes stories as wide ranging as a preview of a new PBS documentary on the history of the Jews and a piece on the Hindu holiday of Holi, there’s very little explicit coverage of Mormonism.

And that’s on purpose, says Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media CEO Clark Gilbert. “The national edition is deliberately targeting values across all faith practices in the country,” he told me.

Fifty-six percent of Americans are “Like-Minded Believers, who value faith, family, caring for others, and share a concern for the decline in moral values,” according to an internal Deseret Media Companies study. That’s the audience Deseret News is aiming to capitalize on with its expansion of coverage. Gilbert said Deseret’s coverage, both local and national, is built on six tenets that it says matter to that readership — family, faith, education, care for the poor, values in media, and financial responsibility.


“We heard a lot of people saying, ‘We read The New York Times and we watch Sean Hannity, and we hate them both,’” Gilbert said of how Deseret News approached the development of its national content.

“They said, ‘We admire the rigor of The New York Times, but we don’t hear any of our values reflected there. Somehow we hear some of our values in Sean Hannity, but it feels angry and polemic. They were mashing together what the market wasn’t providing, which was a thoughtful news source that was journalistic and rigorous and accurate but was asking questions that really resonated to things that mattered to their family.”

By staying away from an explicit focus on its own religion, Gilbert said Deseret News hopes to create a broad dedicated readership. “This is a huge audience, but the second you go denominational, they fragment,” he said. “Mormons read Mormon content, Catholics read Catholic content, Baptists read Baptist content.”

With all the challenges facing locally based news organizations, it’s a natural move to try to find a local beat that can attract national interest. The Boston Globe, for example, plans to launch a site focused on Catholic coverage. And, as Gilbert mentioned to me several times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have long been read outside of Washington and New York because of their coverage of politics and finance.

Gilbert, a former Harvard Business School professor, is known for his work around Christensenian disruption theory; you can see him talking about his work at an event here at the Nieman Foundation last year:

In this case, Deseret News is building on an existing print product. In 2011, it launched a weekly national print edition, and its success — with subscribers in all 50 states — hastened the launch of the standalone national website. Deseret News’ national print edition has about 75,000 print subscribers, with 15,000 of those added in the past year, according to Gilbert. It also syndicates its content to more than 400 different publications around the United States, Gilbert said. The growth has been received well by advertisers, and Deseret has been able to staff up to launch the nationally focused site.

Founded in 1850, the Deseret News — Deseret was the original proposed name for an outsized version of what eventually became the state of Utah — still publishes daily in Salt Lake City. Mirroring industrywide trends, Deseret’s print display ad revenue fell 30 percent between 2008 and 2010. Print classified revenue plummeted 70 percent. Deseret News slashed costs by 42 percent, and in August 2010, it laid off 85 staffers. It also launched a new organization, Deseret Digital Media to grow the company’s websites. Deseret’s network includes a number of local Salt Lake City radio and TV outlets — including long-time digital classifieds superstar — as well as Mormon-focused sites, including the independent Mormon Times, the LDS Church’s official news site and an online Mormon book store. Gilbert wrote about the evolution of Deseret Digital Media in an article in Harvard Business Review. Here at the Lab, Jonathan Stray got into elements of the national strategy — including the launch of a family-friendly movie guide — back in 2012.

The standalone national site, with its trendy rectangle-heavy design, launched in beta in February and was formally launched Sunday with a ten-part series on the role of the Ten Commandments in modern life. The rollout of the site and the feature was timed for Passover, which starts Monday at sundown, and Holy Week, which culminates with Easter on April 20.

The site will feature original content, cross-posted on the Deseret News local site, but it will also feature plenty of aggregated content as well. “It’s almost like The Atlantic Wire or RealClearReligion, but with our brand voice,” Gilbert said.

Despite the conservative editorial leanings of the main newspaper, Gilbert said the national site would not take political stances. For instance, Last month, the site published a story on a Pew Research Center study that showed an increase in acceptance of same-sex marriage by black Protestants. Compare that with the front-page editorial the Deseret News ran with the headline “Judicial tyranny” after a federal judge struck down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage last year.

Part of that national move is partnerships. In February, Deseret News partnered with The Atlantic to produce a series, published on both publication’s websites, about the role of fathers in American society. The seemingly unlikely partnership between Deseret News and the Washington-based monthly received a fair amount of press coverage when it was announced, and Gilbert said it was “absolutely the case” that Deseret News will continue to partner with other outlets. He said he was in discussions with two organizations about partnerships, but said nothing was finalized.

“We’re a serious news organization and we want to partner with people who want to do great work,” Gilbert said.

Photo of an old-fashioned Deseret News delivery cart by Edgar Zuniga Jr. used under a Creative Commons license.

What to read next
Ken Doctor    Aug. 25, 2014
“Things” editor, distribution editor, correspondent for progress — as newsrooms change, so do the ways they organize their human resources.
  • LDSRevelations

    In Utah the Deseret News is seen as the mouthpiece and cheerleader of the LDS Church. Not only does it published the Church News weekly but it is completely incapable and unwilling to be critical or objective in it’s evaluation of the LDS Church and it’s leadership. I can see why in an increasingly difficult world for journalism and publishing the Deseret News would want to have broader appeal. The question is whether or not it can doing what it currently does.

  • Sean Upton

    Journalism? What Deseret Media is in the business of is public relations, and apparently trying to pit an us/them of 56% of some computed demographic against some hypothetical 44% of people they would label as responsible for “social decline” (whatever that trope means, it is about enemy creation).

  • massifarik

    n Utah the Deseret News is seen as the mouthpiece and cheerleader of the
    LDS Church. Not only does it published the Church News weekly but it is
    completely incapable and unwilling to be critical or objective in it’s
    evaluation of the LDS Church and it’s leadership.

  • Richie Rich

    When a news organization censors comments to keep the truth away from delicate and easily influenced ears…. they are not a true news organization. Verily.

  • lobizao

    “They said, ‘We admire the rigor of The New York Times, but we don’t hear any of our values reflected there. Somehow we hear some of our values in Sean Hannity, but it feels angry and polemic.”

    That’s why you listen to NPR

  • lobizao

    The thing with Deseret News is that they constantly publish hardcore LDS mommy blog entires as news. Ugh. And they selectively leave out anything that might be critical to the church or that is too liberal for them. So, yes, they’re not harsh or polemical, but they’re crazy passive-aggressive in their approach.

  • Nathan Jones

    I would like to applaud Deseret News for taking a less biased approach. It is impossible to be completely neutral politically or spiritually, but I have noticed a change for the positive in their articles as of late.

  • Len Davis

    it is like this a uncle in the provo first ward in provo utah steals
    his nephews inheritance of 2 thousand 5 hundred dollars and promises
    many times over to pay him back but can not because the book of mormon
    says that a woman gets anything they want ,,the uncle sends the nephews
    sisters there money when they ask for it but the nephew gets nothing ,
    then there was a furnace that the uncle needed to pay his half for well
    the nephew payed for it at 1 grand to keep his mom from loosing it after
    the uncle in provo utah promised to pay for it. Then the uncle sends
    the money to his sister instead of sending it to his nephew 5 years
    later . The uncle has promised to sell his 64 in a half chevell that is
    worth over 10 grand being on ly one of 500 ever built but he never has ,
    the uncle promised to pay after he got his mortgage and never has , the
    uncle has got 2 of them. The Bishop of provo first wared has been told
    that the uncle took the money with out asking but says his hads are tied
    , when the bishop hs preached that the book of mormon states that a
    woman get anything they want and a man gets craped on

    Why is it
    that the nephew has payed over thousands of dollars extra for the taxes
    on the uncles house in iowa and now the house needs a new roof and the
    nephew has not monry because his wife died form cancer because the lasck
    of money
    the mormon church killed his wife for the rules of a woman gets anything she wans and a man gets nothing

  • bball3212

    signed the guy who named his internet name LDSRevelations.

  • Guest

    You must be reading a different Deseret News than the rest of us.
    Their content is either LDS-based features or obvious conservatively-biased politics.