I know the travails of the Salt Lake Tribune and then smaller papers like the Daily Herald in Provo and the Ogden Examiner don’t seem directly LDS related. However all these papers, along with the Deseret News, tend to cover religious topics. It’s worth discussing what’s going on.
Saying the problems of newspapers don’t matter seems unsupportable. Just in the last year the Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of issues on the Honor Code Office, rape, and malpractice by the BYU campus police. This in turn led to policy changes on campus. Likewise the recent story about Joseph Bishop allegedly raping a missionary while MTC President was a story largely developed by both the Tribune and local television news. I think it safe to say that even if you don’t care for the presentation the Tribune does on LDS related stories, it does break a lot of stories the Deseret News doesn’t.
This week has seen significant layoffs at all three papers including long popular writers in areas like sports. It’s worth noting that Utah is hardly unique in this. Papers all across the nation have been facing downsizing. It’s completely understandable why journalists would emphasize the important social job they do. While I’ve often been critical of Tribune stories, the reality is that they serve an important role of keeping the Church accountable, letting us know what is going on, and bringing attention to problems that might get neglected.
Fundamentally there are two problems. The first is that it turned out newspapers economically were primarily classified businesses with some advertising. News, while helping to increase distribution, was almost akin to a charity operation funded by the classifieds. With the rise of the internet, ventures like Craig’s List or eBay largely killed the classified business. That business is never going to return which means newspapers just can’t pay the salaries or keep the staff they once did.
Free or low cost competition didn’t immediately put newspapers out of business entirely. Ads in the papers continued as older subscribers continued to read the newspaper. However with the rise of smart phones and tablets, more and more people read their news online. Further the online ads paid out far less than print ads had done a decade earlier. As readership aged, profits decreased.
The second problem for newspapers was competition. The prime reporting that people care about isn’t necessarily local but national and international news. The Deseret News or Salt Lake Tribune in those cases now are competing with the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and even England’s The Guardian. Since everyone reads online, that competition is just fundamentally different from what was present a decade or two earlier. Both papers try to deal with this by publishing commentary from other papers and of course they get wire news as well. It only goes so far though. Further in Utah we unusually have even more competition with two major newspapers in a very small market. There’s also smaller local papers like the Provo Daily Herald that also cover the same role.
Oversupply is thus the fundamental issue for local papers. The local papers will never do national and international coverage as well as the national papers. For those who actually do care a lot about local coverage you have several newspapers plus all the television stations. So there are alternatives. For the amount of people interested in local news there’s just too many reporters and not enough money.
This day has been coming ever since people started using Craig’s List and eBay. It’s a question of when, not if, Utah newspapers start folding or amalgamating. Further TV news viewership is also suffering. I suspect TV news will go the way of newspapers as younger people get all their news by way of phones and tablets. Effectively TV news has already become newspapers for most. Rather that getting a Fox13 story off of TV people primarily see it on a web page. Ads on television as opposed to internet ads on web pages will decrease as fewer and fewer watch TV decreasing its value.
Newspapers just are dying. Whatever survives will be a shell of what the media landscape looked like even a decade ago. The hope of some is that local Utah news will find a savior the way billionaire Jeff Bezos saved The Washington Post. Some assumed Huntsman, who owns the Tribune, was just such a savior. I think recent events have poured cold water on that. The reality is that the Wall Street Journal is able to bring in far more money than the Tribune could ever hope to. Journalism is expensive and good coverage needs that financing.
All of this is a long introduction to the main question. How does this affect religion coverage? TV news does cover religion, but rarely as in depth as the newspapers and often with a more sensationalist slant. What will happen? Probably a lot more superficial religious coverage that amounts to little more than press releases or snippets from speakers at events. More punditry, which is cheap, rather than investigative journalism, which is expensive.
Is that good? I don’t think so. I think journalists, whatever their biases, can bring out problems that are lurking beneath the surface that leaders may not notice.
The reality is though, that the chances of there being more than one newspaper in the state 10 years from now are pretty remote. What’s remarkable isn’t that newspapers are dying. It’s that particularly in Utah they’ve lasted this long.
1. I just wish that stories wouldn’t have that annoying tendency to interview people of a particular theological/political view and ignore the many people with more typical Utah views or even people with less popular views that aren’t the reporters. While the facts are almost always right, there often is a slant in how the story is framed. Although to be fair, Deseret News isn’t as apt to quote interviews with those who disagree with Church policy. So both papers have their biases.
2. KSL created their own online classified site which I believe in Utah managed to maintain a lot of the classified business. However the profits were quite different.