LEHI — Utah’s increasingly unique position of being a state with two major newspapers in one city was highlighted June 8 at Silicon Slopes’ Town Hall June meet up. The panelists are all editors of their respective news organizations: Jennifer Napier-Pearce of The Salt Lake Tribune, Doug Wilks of Deseret News and Julia Ritchey of radio station KUER 90.1.
The journalists discussed a variety of issues ranging from the dying print industry, President Donald Trump’s fake news accusations, funding, transparency and Utah’s dire need for two juxtaposing newspaper-based outlets — Desert News and The Salt Lake Tribune.
The topic: The future of Utah’s local journalism.
All three editors adamantly expressed the importance of journalism and told how they came to hold their current positions. Pearce has held the position for almost two years, Wilks a year and a half and Ritchey since December 2017.
Ritchey, who described herself as a scrappy reporter, said some would say the future of journalism is bleak; however, there are lots of exciting things going on especially on the digital platforms.
Wilks agreed and reinforced journalism is not only as important as ever but also a fundamental piece of the First Amendment.
Napier-Pearce called the industry’s financial models a mess, and Wilks stressed the difficulties of finding a sustainable business model. Which, Napier-Pearce said is why smaller news organizations need new innovative ideas — innovative ideas from tech companies.
About the well-publicized newsroom cuts which took place at The Salt Lake Tribune about a month ago, Napier-Pearce said it had been a difficult month.
Laying off 33 percent of the staff, all of whom through no fault of their own lost their jobs, was gut wrenching she said. Napier-Pearce said the situation is not particularly unique either. The Salt Lake Tribune downsized in the past and Deseret News similarly made deep cuts in 2010.
Napier-Pearce said the remaining staff has a sense of survivor’s guilt.
Despite the emotional month, Napier-Pearce said her reporters have not missed a beat. There has been lots of discussion on how The Salt Lake Tribune will move forward and achieve the same level of excellence it did before, now with a much smaller staff.
On the other end of the spectrum, the moderator asked Wilks if there was every any awkwardness for Deseret News being owned by the LDS Church.
Wilks said there is none.
He also said just because the church backs the news organization, it doesn’t mean there is an unlimited money pit in their corner.
“We have to pull our weight. We have to justify our existence. We have to show the benefit of journalism,” Wilks said, emphasizing Deseret News’s business model is not the church simply writing a check.
While he wouldn’t call it awkward, Wilks said he does always take special care to ask himself if their stories are real and authentic because they do answer to significant board members.
“Everybody in Utah is either LDS, or formerly LDS, or has an opinion on the LDS Church,” Wilks said. “We have to be factual.”
Napier-Pearce said one way The Salt Lake Tribune is paying for itself is in subscriptions. To view the digital site, viewers pay a monthly subscription fee. While this method is an anomaly in Utah, Napier-Pearce said 65 percent of newsrooms across the country do it, making it a common practice.
“It was risky because we are the only news outlet who has gone the subscription model in Utah so far,” Napier-Pearce said, “Here where we have a direct competitor, there are many unique aspects to having two major dailies in one city. That is not the case around the majority of the country. And so for the Deseret News to be free online, we had to think long and hard about whether that was the road we wanted to go down. Fortunately, our readers value what we bring.”
Napier-Pearce said she thinks many people don’t understand the difference between journalism and a personal diary entry, which makes getting funding difficult. News organizations need to help people understand how a journalist’s story comes to be.
“It takes a lot more resources to put something together that looks at an issue from various angles that gets trusted voices that can offer analysis and makes a story really meaningful to someone, ” Napier-Pearce said, illustrating the idea that getting people to know this helps them understand why good journalism is expensive.
According to Ritchey, another way local news organizations are raising money are by hosting events. The events don’t earn a huge profit, but Ritchey said the idea is to get people hooked on the brand and hopefully become new subscribers.
“From a local journalism perspective knowing how strapped most newsrooms are for resources right now, it is important to still put on that good face and show that you’re there and covering the things that matter to your audience,” Ritchey said.
KUER is in a different situation than Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune. The radio station has a reporting staff of six and their model has allowed it to stay consistent. Eighty percent of the station’s revenue comes from directly asking its listeners for money, but Ritchey said this is not possible for bigger news sites.
When the conversation shifted to President Trump, Wilks said journalists are under attack more than ever now.
“He brands things fake news and from my point of view it is an attack on the First Amendment to try and diminish the credibility of that which is a foundational part of America,” Wilks said.
Transparency and accuracy combat wild claims and builds trust, according to Wilks.
Ritchey said President Trump has made journalists jobs more difficult by attacking the media, but at the same time, it has sharpened reporters’ sense of purpose.
Hopefully, readers are also seeing the value of good, accurate journalism, she added.
When asked the biggest differences between Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune, the conversation intensified slightly.
Napier-Pearce said although there is a lot of overlap in the things they cover, the biggest difference is The Salt Lake Tribune can hold the church accountable in a way Deseret News cannot.
The two publications also sometimes put emphasis on different things because their audiences value different things, according to Napier-Pearce. She used alcohol as an example.
“I do see some distinctions and that’s why it is so great to have two different voices here,” she said. “We are competitors, but we also recognize that we each have limitations.”
Wilks said he rejects the idea of Deseret News being biased because it is owned by the church, but Napier-Pearce argued that it is biased, using a recent story that was given front page status of President Nelson receiving an award, as an example.
“We try to shine a light on issues that we think are important. Some of the issues that we think are important might differ from what The Salt Lake Tribune does,” Wilks said.
Earlier in the conversation, Ritchey expressed her appreciation for the work the two news sites do.
“I am grateful we live in a state with two different voices,” Ritchey said.
Silicon Slopes is a tech company that hosts monthly meetings featuring entrepreneurs, leaders and government officials to discuss topics and issues pertinent to Utah’s startup community. The June event took place at the company’s headquarters and included about 150 people.