(Updated noon, Jan.28, to include comment from Gilbert)

Clark Gilbert, one of the most influential thinkers and practitioners in the digital transformation of newspapers, is leaving his job as CEO of Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media

In April, he will become president of BYU-Idaho, where he had worked for several years before joining Deseret in 2009. He succeeds Kim Clark, also formerly dean of the Harvard Business School, where Gilbert started his career as a professor.

A successor at Deseret was not immediately named.

Gilbert (a close professional friend, I should disclose) was a ready-made story as he took the reins at Deseret. Academic-puts-theory-to-practice was my take after visiting Salt Lake City and interviewing Gilbert as he was starting out.

In the years following, Gilbert made a series of big changes in rapid order:

    • He brought in non-newspaper executives with backgrounds in other digital ventures to manage that side of the company and created a digital ad sales force.

 

    • He reduced print staff and hired and transferred reporters and editors to digital (before that was standard strategy).

 

    • He directed both the newspaper and its various websites to give special focus to a few areas and try to be best in that field. That included coverage of faith and family values targeting not just Utah readers but Mormons around the country and worldwide.

 

  • He has syndicated some of that content to non-Mormon publications and done collaborations on special projects with other news organizations including The Atlantic.

Most recently, he started an  "innovation wire" and in December contributed a detailed summary of lessons learned in five years at Deseret. It wasn't labeled as a valedictory but that's what it was.

The piece opens with an answer to two things skeptics have said about the transferability of Deseret's experience across the industry -- that it had unusual access to a valued target audience and the advantage of backing from the fabulously wealthy Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Deseret Digital Media (DDM) launched five years ago this January. Over those years I have seen many observers dismiss the transformation at Deseret Digital Media with claims that we are “different.” The comments range from “They must be subsidized” to “Their religious orientation somehow compels their markets to buy their products or subscribe to their websites.” If only either of these misperceptions where true!

The reality is we operate in competitive markets and are very much a for-profit entity. And while we are different, it is not on the dimensions many imagine. As Harvard scholar Michael Porter has described: “Strategy is about making choices, tradeoffs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” But even as we swim against that current, there are a host of other companies we admire, benchmark, and even share innovation practices with quite regularly.

Gilbert did not have the combative edge of fellow digital innovator John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media.  But he was blunt in criticism of the legacy newspaper business model and the industry's sluggish pace of digital change.  More than once I've seen his message greeted with folded arms and skeptical eye-rolls from newspaper professionals.  (He is on the program, for a second time, of the Newspaper Association of America's annual Media x Change conference in March).

Gilbert's doctoral thesis was on disruptive innovation in media. He and mentor Clayton Christensen at Harvard also had heavy input on the Newspaper Next report, an influential future-gazing project of the American Press Institute published in 2005.

His tenure at Deseret, despite many well-documented successes, has not been without controversy. In 2013 he renegotiated a joint operating agreement with the Salt Lake Tribune effectively buying out the controlling share and making Deseret the dominant partner — a move viewed with some suspicion by Tribune journalists.

I was never a Mormon bigot, but I have learned a lot about the religion from Clark and his colleagues, who helped with a Poynter conference on faith and politics in Washington we produced on the eve of Mitt Romney's candidacy.

In private conversations Gilbert, a self-described devout Mormon, he spoke enthusiastically about his time at BYU-Idaho and changes he was able to make at the newer spinoff of Brigham Young University. I didn't see it coming but am not surprised that Gilbert made the change and is exiting media — at least for now.

Update: After this story was posted, Gilbert offered these comments on his old job and new:

Anyone who knows our teams at the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media will realize that the leadership...remains deep and broad. I have every confidence in the editorial, product, and business direction of our teams and expect this organization will continue to see growth well into the future.

One of the reasons we have seen so much growth...is that we have been able to recruit and cultivate talented people who believe deeply in the idea that there is a gap in faith and family news coverage in this county.

In many ways, the challenges facing higher education in the U.S. are similar to the challenges facing media. The call for innovation and new models is particularly acute at a time of growing costs and increasing questions about impact. I am grateful for the opportunity to join a university that is committed to the idea 'Rethinking Education' from the foundation up.