Despite pandemic and economy woes, Sanpete Messenger prospers

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Feb 1, 2022

Suzanne Dean has worked hard to build on the Sanpete Messenger s legacy, still going strong for 129 years.
Suzanne Dean s office art illustrates the growth of the Sanpete Messenger over the years.
Suzanne Dean reached a milestone shortly after buying the Sanpete Messenger-Enterprise when she took the newspaper countywide and named it Sanpete Messenger.

For one week a year, Suzanne Dean closes the Sanpete (Utah) Messenger. This year, she spent her down time at the condo she owns in Salt Lake City.

“We publish 51 issues a year,” she said. “As soon as we get the New Year’s paper out, we close the office and don’t publish the first week. I think it has been a good plan.”

From journalism to teaching to public relations, marketing and politics, Dean, 72, has enjoyed a storied career.

She has owned the Sanpete Messenger for nearly 22 years, and over time, with expansion and mergers, she has taken the 129-year-old newspaper from a small town weekly in the county seat of Manti to a sprawling newspaper that covers the entire Sanpete County in central Utah.

She recalls how her adventure unfolded.

“I started talking to Max Call, the previous publisher, in 1999, and concluded the deal in November of 2000,” she said. “And as far as I know at that time, there were no other female owners except one, and that person had inherited her newspaper.”

Dean cannot remember a time when she has not been passionate about the news. She got her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Utah and went on to earn her master’s degree in from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, leaning toward a teaching career.

“My first real job was at the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, and I was there for four years,” she said. “I got a couple of jobs teaching, first at the University of Idaho and at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.”

She considered getting a Ph.D. in communication at the University of Utah, and midway through her studies, realized she was more comfortable behind a typewriter than in front of a classroom. She stayed at the university, working in public relations before joining the campaign for a Utah gubernatorial candidate. The candidate lost the election, and Dean joined the marketing department of the Aetna life insurance company, writing proposals for large corporations until her division was sold to a different company.

The decision to buy a newspaper was simple.

“I didn’t really want to work for corporate America anymore,” she said. “I wanted to go back into journalism, and I wanted to have my own newspaper. It was a lifetime goal,” she said.

For Dean, stepping into the realm of newspaper ownership was a process. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to purchase newspapers, she wrote a letter to Call and asked if he was open to selling the Sanpete Messenger-Enterprise, as the newspaper was called at the time.

“I had heard he might be turning the newspaper over to his sons,” she said. “But I wrote him asking if he was interested in entertaining an offer, and I’d like to talk to him.”

She visited Manti several times, covering stories and doing some writing for the newspaper. Then she stayed for a week, observing the newspaper and doing some work.

Finally, nearly two years after she wrote that first letter, they negotiated a price, drew up the paperwork and completed the sale. Before the sale, she consulted a business valuator who examined the newspaper’s financial reports and advised her not to buy it, to no avail. Her mind was made up.

She took the reins on March 1, 2021.


For Dean, walking into the Messenger-Enterprise was like stepping back in time. The newspaper’s two-room building had just one regular desk in the publisher’s office and banquet tables converted to desks in the other. “There was just one email account for the whole business,” Dean said. “The newspaper had two small offset presses — one didn’t work, and the other was devoted to the printing business, which at that time brought in a third of the revenue.”

Over the next six months, Dean added modern practices, including full pagination and organizing content into sections for news, opinion, lifestyles, schools and sports. And she created a monthly business section. She stepped up news coverage, built a presence at many local government meetings and began publishing stories that captured the culture and personality of the county.

Instead of having the newspaper staff shoot negatives of the newspaper’s pages, she paid the printer to do that and converted the darkroom to a breakroom.

And she set about making the Messenger-Enterprise the dominant newspaper in Sanpete County.

“When I bought the paper, it focused its coverage on Ephraim and Manti, two of the largest towns in Sanpete County, so we started to move toward renaming the paper and covering the whole county,” she said.

Three years after buying the newspaper, she shortened its flag to Sanpete Messenger and rolled it out with great fanfare and celebration, just short of a tickertape-parade.

“We ran radio ads. We had posters all over the county, and we even had a political style honk and wave the day we mailed the first paper out,” she said. She also sent a total market coverage (TMC) edition of the newly gilded publication to every household in the county, and her efforts were met with a surge in subscriptions.

“I had more returned subscription cards than I could hold in my hands,” she said. “We brought in $10,000 in new subscriptions from that drive, and that’s when I started to think maybe we could make this work.”

Today, the newspaper’s circulation is around 1,800. Newspapers are distributed through the U.S. Postal Service and on newsstands.


Sanpete County is in the heart of Utah, and Manti is about 124 miles south of Salt Lake City. Its population in 2020 was 28,437 according to the U.S. Census. It’s a rural county speckled with 13 small towns and communities.

The Sanpete Messenger manages to cover them all, with Dean tackling the county commission and two city councils plus freelancers covering others. And rather than report on the meetings that take place, the newspaper focuses on issues the local governments and the school boards face — from policy decisions to controversies.

If news is the heartbeat of a newspaper, advertising is the life blood. At the Sanpete Messenger, Dean began beefing up advertising with special sections and special publications. “At one time, we had five supplements,” she said.

Dean’s success has not come without a few rough spots along the way. In her quest to cover the entire county, she set her sights on an area called Gunnison Valley, served by two newspapers — Gunnison Valley News and The Salina Sun. She purchased both newspapers, sold the Salina Sun and converted the Gunnison Valley News into a zoned edition under the Sanpete Messenger flag. All was going according to plan until the Town of Gunnison’s mayor started a competing newspaper, cutting her Gunnison Valley edition circulation and business in half, Dean said. She struggled to keep it going for a decade.

Then the pandemic hit.

“I was actually in Sam’s Club in Provo buying hand sanitizer when my phone rang,” she said. Her competitor was ready to get out of the business and turned the newspaper over to Dean in exchange for payment of an outstanding printing bill of $8,000.

“It helped tip our revenue over to $400,000 for the first time, and we’re maintaining about a 10% profit margin,” she said.


When Dean purchased the Sanpete Messenger-Enterprise, Call’s sons stayed on board, easing the transition as part of the staff. Today, Lloyd Call serves as associate publisher.

Along with Call, the Sanpete Messenger has about a dozen employees and an army of stringers, contributors and high school students who do the inserting and labeling.

Looking into her crystal ball, Dean sees a bright future for the printed newspaper for at least another 10 years, she said. Sanpete County is growing as the metro areas of Salt Lake City and Provo continue to expand outward.

“We still have a core group of residents who want their local news in print,” she said. “If you have a wedding, a 50th anniversary or if someone dies in Sanpete County, you put it the newspaper, and those are probably the sections people turn to first because there's still that community consciousness where people want to know what's going on with their neighbors.”

With four high schools in the county, there’s no shortage of local sports news, and even if readers attend games, they still want to see the photos and read the statistics, she added.

“I think our readers will continue to support a printed paper for quite some time,” she said.

As for Dean, she is looking forward to retirement, and at the age of 72, she wants to pursue other interests. She’s not looking to sell her paper but hopes to find someone to serve as publisher.

“I've had some real interest in that, and I think that's probably the way we're going to go,” she said.

The next publisher will take the reins of a strong, award-winning newspaper with a rich legacy and a loyal readership.

“I may be blowing my own horn right now, but I can say that we’ve received general excellence award 12 times out of the 19 times we have entered the contest,” she said. “And we have won some national awards, too. I’m pleased with that.”

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C. Contact her at