Salt Lake Tribune,” Edgar Zuniga Jr.

November 4, 2019; Salt Lake Tribune

Yesterday, the Salt Lake Tribune published an FAQ and explainer on what readers ought to expect now that it has become a nonprofit. Among those changes is the Tribune’s ability to receive their donations, which readers learn right off the bat.

The article suggests the paper was taken by surprise by the swiftness of the approval, but we here at NPQ were not. Steve Dubb called this one back in June when the paper announced it had applied, even though some pundits worried that the IRS would reject it because its business model was too similar to for-profits.

We doubted that, even though this kind of rejection was common even seven years ago when we reported on what turned out to be the tail end of the problem. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and not only are nonprofit news sites having little problem getting approved, these days, practically no one is rejected under contemporary processes that are very streamlined and, if anything, too lax in our opinion.

So, what differences will readers experience?

While our business model is changing, our journalistic ethics and commitment to the highest quality journalism remains the same. We will always remain Utah’s independent voice, so you’ll continue to get reliable local journalism, covering critical topics like the environment, government, sports, religion and the arts plus Bagley, a vibrant opinion page, obituaries and so much more every day. The only real change is that federal law prohibits nonprofits from electioneering, so the Tribune editorial board will no longer endorse political candidates. We’ll still weigh in on issues and policies, but we won’t tell you who we think you should vote for. But please, vote!

Of course, “ownership” is now transferred from Paul Huntsman to the public, with the stewardship of a board, which at this point is interim but will be built out with community representatives. (The paper invites ideas for board members.)

Another thing the Tribune addresses is a larger concern in nonprofit media—whether or not large donors might have undue influence:

While we will seek financial support for reporting and special projects, no donor or gift will be able to direct or influence the organization’s reporting on issues, people or organizations. All donations to the Salt Lake Tribune will be public. We are committed to full transparency and understand that this is fundamental to the trust our readers have in the Tribune.

It’s an interesting cycle we have been through. Thirty years ago, Mother Jones was threatened with revocation because it had a business model too similar to a for-profit, an attitude that emanated at least in part from concerns about “restraint of trade,” which is a fancy way of saying that nonprofits in the same field as for-profits have an unfair advantage in their tax exemption. Among hospitals, those that are nonprofit are required to discharge that advantage through providing community benefit, but making formal accommodations for the differential is by no means standard across all fields. In that context, the fact that the Salt Lake Tribune appears to see this as an advantage and has called that out openly as a major reason for the shift is interesting. Once again, some kinds of efforts, organized ostensibly for public benefit, may simply do better as nonprofits, with a bottom line that’s centered on impact and mission rather than the extraction of profit.—Ruth McCambridge