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April 14, 2014, 10:45 a.m.
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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.

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“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 KSL.com — 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.

POSTED     April 14, 2014, 10:45 a.m.
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