Reporters at Deseret Media collect raw material—video, audio and text—then send it back to a rewrite desk that tailors it for the Web, radio TV, and print, in that order. Owned by the Mormon Church, the media concern that operates Salt Lake City’s KSL-TV, KSL-AM, the Deseret News and two websites, is “building a workflow system that is platform agnostic,” says Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media (left).
Like other news organizations, Salt Lake City’s Deseret Media readily dispatches reporters to breaking stories. But the similarities between the way Deseret gathers and distributes news pretty much end right there.
That’s because Deseret, which owns KSL-TV, KSL-AM, the Deseret News and two immensely successful websites in the No. 31 DMA no longer expects its reporters to produce full-blown stories.
Rather, reporters are expected to collect as much raw material — video, audio and text — as possible, which is then sent back to a rewrite desk, staffed by individuals trained to tailor that content for the Web, radio, TV and print, in that order.
“We are building a workflow system that is platform agnostic,” says Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media, who developed the new process and formally inaugurated it on Aug. 31.
The idea, he says, is to make sure content is ready to go for all of Deseret’s properties as quickly as they can handle them — and to cut costs by integrating staff and eliminating duplication.
Whatever gain the reorganization produces is not coming without some pain. Deseret laid off 85 Deseret News editorial staffers — about 40% of the workforce — in the move to the multi-platform newsroom.
The layoffs were similar to those occurring at newspapers around the country, according to Gilbert. “That really just reflects the changing economics of print media,” he says. “Most newspapers are cutting costs.”
Offsetting the newspaper losses to some extent is that the non-editorial digital staff has grown to 75 people over the years.
“The net take away from this is that we can have the largest newsroom in the market with greater reach and more stories at a lower cost,” Gilbert says. “The people we have in our newsroom have become increasingly both print- and digital-savvy, and they have to be,” he says.
Gilbert expects the recent changes to further the extraordinary success KSL-TV has had in navigating new media.
By most measures, its KSL.com is the No. 1 local TV station or newspaper site in the country with 3.8 million unique visits per month. That number also puts KSL.com fourth among all TV-based news sites, behind CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
“KSL.com just blows everyone else away,” says Gordon Borrell, a researcher who tracks local online media.
And the site is not just news. Its classified section tops newspaper-killer Craigslist.com in its market, Gilbert says.
In 2009, about 60% of adults in the Salt Lake City market visited KSL.com, according to Media Audit.
The Deseret News’ Deseretnews.com ranked second in the market, drawing about 26% of adults, outperforming the Salt Lake City Tribune’s website, even though the print version of the Tribune has more readers.
Websites run by Salt Lake City’s other TV stations — myfoxutah.com, ABC4.com and kutv.com — trailed, garnering views from about 18%, 15% and 12% of adults, respectively, which is more typical of TV stations’ draws, the Media Audit report showed.
Though the Deseret News has suffered the loss in revenue that spurred the recent layoffs, its readership is actually up, Gilbert says. Deseret News readership grew by 20% last year, making it the fastest growing newspaper in the country, Gilbert says.
Deseret Media declined to give financial figures that show its properties’ revenues. Deseret did, however, release percentages that show KSL.com’s growth over the last two years. In 2009, KSL.com had 22% more revenue, 31% more page views and 63% more unique visitors than in 2008, the company says.
This year, revenue is expected to grow by 46%, page views by 14% and unique visitors by 16%.
While committed to the “platform-agnostic” workflow, Deseret still maintains separate TV and newspaper investigative teams and culls content that fits its properties’ distinct brands, Gilbert says.
KSL and its website, for example, highlight breaking news, whereas the print and digital versions of the Deseret News focus on in-depth reports, he says. About 50% of stories wind up on all platforms, with the rest distributed through the one deemed most appropriate, he says. “It is still key that you have brand differentiation and brand identification,” he says.
As it has built out its digital platforms, Deseret has built up sales teams for them, Gilbert says, citing studies showing that companies with sales forces dedicated to Internet sales outperform those without them.
Deseret also now has a separate sales force that targets small and medium-size advertisers that would not likely advertise on TV or in print “and that’s grown a whole new category of advertisers,” he says.
The company also has created national and telesales teams and has brought in sales specialists to help train existing sales reps.
The websites include self-service ad sales for merchants who want them. Those efforts are paying off, Gilbert says.
In addition to conservative estimates that KSL.com revenue will grow 46% this year (it already is on track to do better), the digital properties are becoming increasingly important for Deseret’s overall financial well-being, he says.
“We went from close to 70% of our sales coming from traditional TV and radio and now well below half do, even while TV and radio sales are growing,” Gilbert says.
Deseret benefits from circumstances that won’t be factors for others trying to duplicate its success. As a company that is owned by the Mormon Church, its website attracts members not only in Salt Lake City, where the church is based, but elsewhere around the country.
Non-church members are also drawn to the “values-based” news coverage Deseret offers, Gilbert says. “It’s not religious, but it is grounded in family, looking at faith in the community and decency in the media.”
That connection to the Mormon Church also helps the websites’ immense classified sections, he says. While residents in other cities might opt for Craigslist, people in Salt Lake City are likely to do business in a forum where they are more comfortable, he says. “Because of the ownership, people can trust us,” he says.
It certainly makes Deseret stiff competition for other media in the market, says Josh Awtry, assistant managing editor of the Salt Lake City Tribune, the top paper in town.
Awtry says the Tribune is trying to make gains on Deseret’s digital success by making its site more robust, hiring arts critics who lost their Deseret News jobs in the recent layoffs and putting more reporters on the street.
“KSL.com’s big strength has always been breaking news but we want to not only match that, but be better while trying to be a newspaper watchdog,” he says. “In print, we’ve always been on top, so in some ways it’s invigorating to have robust competition.”
It’s not that KSL.com’s success has necessarily come easily, say Deseret Digital Media VP Russell Banz. Rather, as a company that moved early and fast into the digital space, there were experiments that didn’t always succeed, like when the company tried audio streaming of Brigham Young University football games in 1996.
“It didn’t always work,” Banz says. “We were crashing servers.”
Some of that trial-and-error continues, like the company’s recent foray into hosting online comment boards, which were disabled when user content started straying from Deseret’s standards. “We have failed a lot,” he says.
But that willingness to try technologies and features as they become available is one of the primary factors behind Deseret’s digital success, Banz adds. “It’s having this mindset that we are just going to be first.”