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So who’s winning the circulation war? Tribune or Deseret News?
Media » Latest audits bolster claims on both sides as debate heats up over new operating deal.
First Published May 18 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jun 06 2014 06:04 pm

Numbers, of course, can be read many ways­— and that includes the business of reading news.

One view of new circulation audits for Salt Lake City’s battling newspapers seems to bolster claims that a recent reworking of the two dailies’ decades-old partnership is patently unfair. Seen another way, the figures appear to reflect a new world in Utah’s media markets.

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The latest audits show The Salt Lake Tribune has a daily print circulation of 61,475, compared with 40,179 for the Deseret News.

Despite The Tribune’s hefty advantage in weekday circulation, the revised joint-operating agreement (JOA) gives the LDS Church-owned News a 70 percent to 30 percent edge in print profits.

In separate measures of what is called penetration — the newspapers’ relative shares of markets attractive to local advertisers in the Salt Lake City area and northern Utah — The Tribune also enjoys a significant lead, according to the new figures from the advertiser-backed Alliance for Audited Media.

"In the areas where the two papers have traditionally served readers, The Tribune is far and away the stronger paper," said Joan O’Brien, a leading critic of the newly drafted pact, which she warns has put The Tribune’s finances on a steep decline.

Taking inventory » Efforts by O’Brien, a former Tribune staffer who is married to a reporter at the paper and is the daughter of late Tribune Publisher Jerry O’Brien, have helped spark an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into the newspaper deal.

­But the circulation audits released this month also lend weight to the News’ growing business clout in the long-standing partnership. In the industry benchmark measure of Sunday audiences, the News is ahead, with a combined print-PDF-mobile reach ­of 207,480 on Sundays, compared with 195,355 for The Tribune.

The March 2014 circulation reports provide further evidence of a remarkable three-year audience surge for the 164-year-old News, driven by its faith-focused National Edition launched in 2011 and delivered weekly at a bargain rate to subscribers primarily outside Utah.

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The 14-page edition, wrapped around the LDS Church News, has pushed the Deseret News to 109,330 print readers on Sundays, the audits show, well above The Tribune’s 80,818.

In the newspaper-centric way the alliance counts circulation, the Web is a separate animal. And in the online numbers, the News seems to be exploding its traffic, due partly to new offerings for family-oriented film reviews and user-generated content. After nearly two years of hovering around 2.6 million unique users a month, compared with a range of about 2.3 million to 2.9 million for The Tribune, the News is now reporting those users have jumped above 5.4 million monthly.

Both papers have growing readerships on mobile devices such as e-readers, smartphones and computer tablets, at 94,252 on Sundays for The Tribune and 78,346 for the News, audits show.

Like the rest of the U.S. news industry, both Salt Lake City papers see digital audiences as their future. John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, the New York-based chain that owns The Tribune, has said the new JOA’s main goal was to reduce the paper’s print profile and invest in digital.

Paton would not comment for this story, saying, "I would only be repeating myself."

Deseret News CEO Clark Gilbert, a primary force behind the values-centered coverage and other changes at his paper, turned down requests for an interview. Instead, the former Harvard University professor pointed to glowing coverage of the National Edition and its new Web counterpart by the Harvard-affiliated Nieman Journalism Lab.

The head of the News-Tribune jointly run company MediaOne of Utah — which handles advertising, printing and delivery for both papers — did not respond to requests for comment on the new circulation figures.

MediaOne CEO Brent Low instead issued a short news release hailing the numbers, which he said saw the two papers’ combined reach rise by 7 percent in print and 15 percent in online.

"We are pleased with the results and expect to continue growing our audience," said Low, who also noted the News "had one of the highest combined readership increases in the nation."

The Nieman articles and others like them portray the News’ National Edition as a success, something increasingly rare in an industry suffering widespread declines in audiences and ad revenue, forcing layoffs and, in some cases, closures. Analysts view it as an experiment in how a national publication may offset losses in dollars from local advertisers.

But against the backdrop of the JOA dispute, one media observer worries the News’ national aspirations come at the expense of journalism devoted to Utah.

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