Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: What’s the future of Utah’s newspapers?

Recent newspaper layoffs in Utah raise questions about the rapidly changing communications world and what it means for our local news media. We explore the ramifications.

What do the layoffs and low media approval ratings say about our news media locally and nationally?

Pignanelli: "Fifty percent of people won't vote, and fifty percent don't read newspapers. I hope it's the same fifty percent." — Gore Vidal

Our constitutional rights of freedom of speech and press are sacred fundamentals. Therefore, as a good Italian I must use a food analogy to highlight their importance. These protections are the vegetables of the American body politic providing nutrients, fiber and healthy regeneration. Although not always tasty, without them everything else withers.

The endless Twitter disparagement by President Donald Trump is often blamed for the challenges confronting news media. Yet, Trump is an amateur compared to his predecessors. Richard Nixon worked the IRS and the Justice Department to harass the media. A prominent constitutional law scholar (aka Barack Obama) subpoenaed reporters, targeted leakers and unreasonably limited access to information. Founding Father John Adams pushed the Alien and Sedition Acts to criminalize newspaper conduct. The businesses of newspapers are struggling not because of Trump, but because of what underlies Trump’s success — the internet.

Utah’s relatively small population supports two major statewide and many regional newspapers. This indicates Utahns still consider periodicals critical to understanding local and national current events.

So, Utahns love and want their vegetables, but no longer in the traditional recipes.

Webb: It is actually quite remarkable that Salt Lake City has two competing newspapers. Few, if any, similar markets anywhere in the country have two papers. The only reason both papers survive is they operate under an agreement allowing them to share a lot of operations and expenses. In other industries, such an arrangement would violate antitrust laws, but newspapers were given an exemption.

Many years ago, I was in a meeting with the top leadership of the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune. Tribune Publisher Dominic Welch, who was also president of the Newspaper Agency Corporation, made this statement: “One day there will only be one newspaper in this city — and it won’t be the Deseret News.” How wrong he was.

I believe the LDS Church really does want the Tribune to survive. The church is subject to criticism for dominating Utah’s culture and society, so having a dissenting voice in the state is actually good for the church.

As long as the Tribune is there, the church can say, “See, there’s a lot of diversity and alternative voices in Utah. We don’t really dominate.”

How important are newspapers and other media in supplying reliable information to the public about politics and elections?

Pignanelli: The biggest stories of the last two years (Weinstein and other sexual harassment revelations, Russian meddling, payments to porn stars, etc.) were revealed by newspapers and magazines. Utah’s daily publications continue to shed an important light on legislative, executive and local governmental activities. The press, in traditional and new formats, continues to provide the valuable check on the powerful.

Dystopian futures are frequent scenarios for the movies and television. But the real nightmare is the void of free speech. Journalists are the greatest soldiers and defenders of this right, and we need to keep them engaged whether through newspapers, magazines, blogs, television, YouTube, paid subscriptions or whatever. The health of our democracy depends on them.

Those who want their news for free all the time are sacrificing freedom to save pennies.

Webb: Despite their challenges, the traditional media still set the agenda. Most social media posts and online media stories link back to traditional media. And despite their obvious biases, the traditional media still produce the most reliable and factual stories.

Are newspapers, in particular, dinosaurs awaiting extinction, or will they make a comeback?

Pignanelli: The Facebook controversy taught Americans an invaluable lesson — nothing is free. So paying a minimal fee to participate in privacy secured social networking platforms will eventually prompt customers to subscribe to media outlets for their news consumption. Entrepreneurs will discover multiple methods to publish newspapers at a profit.

Webb: The Deseret News has a chance to survive because it is part of a family of communications-related businesses, including KSL TV, KSL Radio, KSL.com, LDS Church News, Deseret Digital Media, DeseretNews.com and Deseret Book.

Those relationships provide synergies and collaboration that a stand-alone newspaper doesn’t enjoy. Reporters, editors, photographers, etc., can provide and share content across a number of print, online and broadcast platforms, which provides a lot of economies.

Unlike the Tribune, the Deseret News and its sister companies also have a worldwide audience, providing news and information to millions of members of the church. That’s a big market.