Salt Lake with an Attitude: Utah's Vogue New Paper

By Fahys, Judy | American Journalism Review, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Salt Lake with an Attitude: Utah's Vogue New Paper


Fahys, Judy, American Journalism Review


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 stew 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 erased to mean hard-hitting investigations, smart features and "a generous shot of humor" with stones 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.

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