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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

Salt Lake With An Attitude:Utah’s Vogue New Paper   

By Judy Fahys

The Salt Lake Observer strutted onto the media scene in Utah's largest city in June with in-your-face caricatures and a sassy spin on news events. Ever since, the city's established print media have speculated whether a broadsheet resembling the New York Observer can find an enduring audience for edgy news and upscale features in the Mormon Zion.

For certain, people have taken note of the fortnightly newspaper in a market that supports two dailies, a business weekly, two glossy magazines and a slew of free alternative and specialty publications.

Michael Kearns, the Observer's publisher and co-founder, delights in the attention and relishes in tweaking the competition. He's fond of saying, "We started the Salt Lake Observer because we wanted something to read."

The punchy paper promises "Smart Local News," a tagline crafted to mean hard-hitting investigations, smart features and "a generous shot of humor" with stories on business, sports, politics, media and the arts. An oft-quoted motto at the Observer comes from H.L. Mencken: "One smart reader is worth a thousand boneheads."

This isn't Kearns' first startup--he helped launch four successful magazines, including Conde Nast's Traveler. And he has a family history in newspapering: His great-grandfather, U.S. Sen. Thomas Kearns, and a partner bought the Salt Lake Tribune, now the state's largest paper, in 1901. His grandfather sold his 40 percent share five decades ago, but Kearns' family still owns a small interest in the paper.

In his current venture, Kearns' partner is Richard J. Howa, president of Howa Construction in Salt Lake City. A knight of the Catholic Church who collects rare books and motorcycles, Howa prompted Kearns to start the newspaper, which operates out of the stately Kearns Building, a downtown landmark across the street from the Tribune.

The fancy digs reflect the paper's target audience--an upscale readership with household incomes greater than $70,000 a year. Kearns sees these readers as the sort likely to pay $1 for his paper when they pick up the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Its ad-marketing fliers tout readers with a median household income of $110,100--a figure based on "publisher's estimates."

The question is whether the Observer can survive with such a narrow readership.

For the time being, the new broadsheet is being sent free to 24,000 upper-income households in the Salt Lake City area and nearby Park City. An additional 5,500 go to newsstands, hotels and advertisers.

The Observer projects it needs 25,000 paid subscriptions to break even, Kearns says, and it wants double that to go weekly. Trouble is, the Observer's immediate market includes only 35,000 households with income above $70,000, according to a market research firm.

Kearns says the paper is broadening its initial target group. Ideally, he'd like the Observer to be distributed statewide, and, he says, "We're not leaving out the $55,000-plus [households] from our plans."

Among those wondering whether there are enough Salt Lake readers with an appetite for attitude-laden news is John Hughes, editor of the Mormon church-owned Deseret News and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. "It's an interesting effort, but I wonder if they haven't overestimated the market," he muses. "You know, what's the niche?"

Kearns has staffed the newspaper largely with writers familiar to the city's readers: Editor Karl Cates and Managing Editor Brooke Adams both hail from the Deseret News, Salt Lake City's afternoon daily; media writer Paul Swenson has been a regular writer and editor for local publications since his editorship of the now-defunct magazine Utah Holiday.

Critics wonder if the usual stable of Salt Lake writers can bring a distinctive voice to the market. "He's using the same talent pool that has been here for years," says John Saltas, publisher of the free alternative newspaper, City Weekly. "I don't know what the new part is. What's new besides the look?"

And even that isn't so fresh, according to Brian Kempner, president of the New York Observer. "It's an obvious copy of our paper," he says, apparently not flattered.

But the Salt Lake newcomer--like its New York role model--has injected some uncommon material into the local media mix. One recent cover story gave readers a trench-level view of the newspaper war developing between the two dailies as the Deseret News contemplates a switch to morning circulation. And a later article speculated the sun might be setting on the career of local celebrity Robert Redford.

Yet, some coverage is old news. A cover story in the debut issue rehashed a year-old gun control debate. Another piece chronicled the demise of a prominent technology company well covered by the local and national media.

"Most of their stories ran a week or so before in the papers, and most of the stories are too long," says Dominic Welsh, publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune. He gives the startup a year--or less.

Kearns is confident about the paper's future but fully acknowledges an early struggle--the Observer could lose money for its first two years. As he says, "It costs to play this game."