User:Cool Hand Luke [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

May 8, 2019; Salt Lake Tribune

Tony Semerad of the Salt Lake Tribune reports that Paul Huntsman, the owner of that paper, has confirmed he is investigating the possibility of attaining nonprofit status both for the 148-year-old, financially ailing periodical and for an independent foundation for which the wealthy Huntsman hopes to build an endowment.

This article states that this would be the first legacy newspaper to go this way, but we know that is not exactly the case; similar setups have been negotiated for the Tampa Bay Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. (Even Huntsman says these groups have provided models, and the structure is definitely reminiscent of that of the Lenfest Institute, which holds the Philadelphia Inquirer.) The paper has also partnered on projects with the nonprofit ProPublica and the Utah Investigative Journalism Project, so there is likely a comfort level with the concept and necessary differences of a nonprofit news operation. One of the markers of the model Huntsman has chosen, in fact, is that the proposed foundation will not focus only on the financial health of The Tribune, but on the health of investigative journalism more generally in Utah. This is similar in tone and intention to the Lenfest and Poynter Institutes.

But what is the primary motivation? Huntsman does call the Tribune “a vital community asset [that] should be owned by the community.” But the organization is also in something of a financial tailspin and Huntsman’s been exploring options for the paper since laying off a third of its staff a year ago. This report says the Tribune’s newsroom staffing is now, at 60 employees, less than half what it was in 2011. The Tribune also put up an online paywall last year, possibly as a response to declining advertising.

Perhaps also fueling the situation is the expiration of a 60-year-old joint operating agreement between the Tribune and its main competitor, the Deseret News. This agreement, which is for a shared circulation, advertising, and production operation is set to expire in 2020.

The new entity will be established separately from a connected yet-to-be-endowed nonprofit foundation that will support independent journalism in Utah generally but with a focus on the Tribune. Neither nonprofit has been approved yet. Huntsman himself plans to take a seat on the three-member foundation board, but he says a firewall will be maintained between the directors of the foundation, the directors of the newspaper’s board, and its editorial staff. He is also already committing to transparency regarding donors, a principle held by many nonprofit news organizations.

Huntsman feels that having the paper “owned by the community” through memberships or donations offers more integrity at its core than private ownership. “The core of our mission is local news, reporting on the facts and empowering the citizens with the best information to make the right decisions,” he says. “That’s what newspapers have always provided. And we can’t afford as a community to ever let that resource go away.”

Huntsman and Fraser Nelson, the vice president of business innovation, say the feasibility work they have done to vet the endowment’s prospects are promising.

“In those initial conversations with people whose financial and emotional support we will need,” she says, “the response has been universally, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes. We need to find a sustainable business model for the paper and I want to be a part of supporting that.’”

All that said, the paper may have a harder row to hoe than it realizes. Nonprofit-hood does not make all of one’s financial problems go away. Jay Rosen, a media pundit we love to read because he calls ’em as he sees ’em, appears to be skeptical both of motive and of potential outcome:

It interests me that when you switch the Salt Lake Tribune from a private business, run for commercial gain, to a nonprofit, dedicated to public good, you simply assume that these are two ways to finance the same service, rather than describing how the service will change.

And then

The Salt Lake Tribune wants to turn itself into a nonprofit and rely on donations. Big step, but it changes, rather than solving, your business model problems.

Amen to that!—Ruth McCambridge