Thursday, August 12, 2010

Open Container: Deseret News Layoffs

Posted By on August 12, 2010, 5:08 PM

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Significant layoffs are expected at the Deseret News, prompting questions about its future as a print publication and even its location in the Downtown Rising blueprint.---

More than a dozen confidential sources inside the paper, including some holding management positions, have confirmed that layoffs are planned for late August or early September, with the first wave hitting Aug. 20.

And the layoffs aren't small: Likely a third of the staff will be let go, with some estimating cuts as high as 50 to 60 percent.

When I left the paper a year ago, the LDS Church-owned Deseret News boasted about 200 employees. If the percentages I've been told bear out, that means at least 60 employees, and maybe more than 100, will be laid off. Some may be retained on a contract basis, working as freelance editors or bloggers paid per printed article or for the number of online hits their stories receive.

The layoffs have been expected for awhile, and I first started hearing serious rumors a few weeks ago. At the time, however, dates were still a moving target and the numbers were in the air. Still, one person sitting in the meetings told me a couple of weeks ago that "it's going to be traumatic." Those rumors crystallized this week, and, generally, the reactions from people telling me the numbers and dates were accompanied with simple declarations like "holy shit."

I attempted to verify the numbers and dates with new president and chief executive officer of the Deseret News Clark Gilbert and Mark Willes, the head of Deseret Management Corporation. I was told Thursday by their assistants that neither Gilbert nor Willes would "comment on rumors," even to deny their accuracy. Messages left with Editor-in-Chief Joe Cannon, managing editor Rick Hall and city editor Tad Walch, in which I asked for a comment or a denial of the "rumors" didn't net responses, either.

Additionally, staffers at the paper told me that when they have asked their bosses about the rumors, they get no response. As one person said, "Their silence says everything."

Full disclosure: I worked at the paper for more than a decade, leaving primarily because of disputes with upper management about their push for a "More Mormon" newspaper. My grandfather, Glen Snarr, was the chairman of the board for the Deseret News from 1996 to 2006, where he brought in the first non-Mormon editor-in-chief, John Hughes, and pushed the paper to become a morning newspaper. Thus,I will be the first to admit that it makes me mad as hell what they are doing to my grandfather's legacy. For that reason alone, it's not at all surprising that Willes, Gilbert & Co. wouldn't call me back.

However, they have talked to other media, with the most telling article being published by Poynter Online. In an interview with media business analyst Rick Edmonds, Gilbert, who Edmonds described as a "specialist in disruptive change," talked about the growth of the digital side of the Mormon media properties, of which 60 percent came from outside of Utah. The Mormon audience, he said, "gives us a chances for a world-wide audience" and does not have to rely on local readership. He also said that there would be the elimination of some "inessentials" at the Deseret News. For newspapers around the country, those "inessentials" are replaced by things like outsourced copy desks, layout templates instead of a full-time production staff, and more freelance artists and photographers. At the Deseret News, that started to happen a couple of weeks ago, when the head of the production team was replaced and a manager -- not a page designer -- was put in charge.

Gilbert also told Edmonds that "there was never a great business model for news content," and that the cost of producing news should be on par with generated revenue. In 2010, that means scaling back full-time reporters and replacing their work with the work of local bloggers.

Thus the layoffs are, possibly, only the start of what could be major upheaval for Salt Lake City's second-largest daily newspaper, with a circulation of about 79,000 on Sundays. Cutting almost half of the staff would mean that their current home, in the 9-story building at 30 E. 100 South that the Deseret News Publishing Co. built with cash 12 years ago, will become very empty, even with three floors already leased out to other businesses (including the Associated Press bureau). The building is prime real estate in the up-and-coming City Creek development.

About a half-dozen Deseret News staffers have speculated to me that the paper might be moving to the Triad Center, which would allow them to more easily converge with KSL and create a mega-news website.

It also raises questions about the paper as a daily publication. I have long asserted privately that by the end of 2011, or sooner, the Deseret News would become an online-mostly publication, with printed papers published 3 to 5 days per week. In the place of a daily newspaper, they would tout their "24/7 online" content as the heart and soul of its operation. I am now comfortable making this assertion publicly, even though most people have told me I'm crazy.

The Open Container Update is published every weekday. It's often a news round-up and analysis, but sometimes will be used to publish exclusives, as with today's update.

Josh Loftin:


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