Can Nonprofit Status Save The Salt Lake Tribune?
It would be the first legacy newspaper to do so.
The 148-year-old Salt Lake Tribune wants to become the first U.S. legacy newspaper to try nonprofit status on for size, sustaining itself with donations instead of advertising revenue. Attorneys representing the newspaper are seeking IRS approval for an endowed nonprofit foundation supporting independent journalism in Utah, while also pursuing 501(c)(3) status. If approved, ownership would be transferred from owner Paul Huntsman, who acquired the newspaper in 2016, to a public board. Such a transition could take up to a year. In the meantime, it will be business as usual at the Salt Lake Tribune, and subscriptions will not change.
“These are challenging times for our nation, our state and journalism. Utahns have relied on The Tribune to make sense of the world around us, to create a common conversation that crosses geography and party lines, and to participate effectively in a democratic society. By transitioning to a nonprofit business model, we are ensuring that Utahns will continue to have the impactful, empowering journalism they need in perpetuity,” said Huntsman. “The Tribune is a vital community asset and should be owned by the community.”
Huntsman said he made the decision to go nonprofit after nearly a year of studying other news nonprofits and consulting with thought leaders in the industry. During the last year, the newspaper has suffered its own struggles, including the layoffs of one-third of its newsroom staff and the elimination of its Utah news section on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Other pages, including news, features, entertainment, business, sports and puzzles, were reduced. The 2018 reduction was the fourth round of major layoffs for the paper since 2011.
“Laying off talented and dedicated colleagues has been flat-out excruciating and represents a tremendous loss not only for this newsroom, but also for our entire community. With fewer numbers, we simply can’t be all things to all people or do things the way we used to. But losing a trusted news source, a Pulitzer Prize-winning independent voice in Utah, is absolutely not an option. Those of us who remain will continue to provide the high-quality journalism you’ve come to expect from The Tribune,” said editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce in May 2018.
The editor said becoming a nonprofit is vital to the sustainability of the newspaper. Even though digital revenues are increasing, that revenue is not sufficient to make up for the loss of advertising revenue.
“We have to survive,” Napier-Pearce said. “Our community would be so much worse off without this publication, let alone independent journalism.”
How will the transition to a nonprofit work? The details aren’t yet clear, but one option is to handle print and digital subscriptions as if they are gifts to subscribers in exchange for their donations. If the nonprofit status is granted, Huntsman will remain publisher and Napier-Pearce will continue as editor.
One issue that could complicate matters is a joint operating agreement with the Deseret News, a competing newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That arrangement currently favors the Deseret News and is set to expire next year, reports Nieman Lab. Another potential snag in the shift is how The Tribune covers politics, watchdog issues and opinion. As a nonprofit, the organization will be held to a different standard of scrutiny.
This is an interesting take on the news business model, as a legacy newspaper tries to find long-term sustainability by becoming a nonprofit. It is not clear whether this will help The Tribune stop the bleeding, or if another year of waiting will require further cuts and sacrifices, putting the newspaper in an even more tenuous situation. Regulatory issues aside, it boils down to what the true goal of The Tribune is now, 148 years after its founding. Is it to provide quality journalism to readers, or is it to make a profit?