SALT LAKE CITY (AP) ‑ The Salt Lake Tribune said Monday it has received approval from the IRS to convert to a nonprofit in what it hopes will ensure its long-term viability in an industry in crisis.
The nontraditional model could become a blueprint for other newspapers trying to survive amid industry-wide financial struggles fueled by declines in advertising and circulation revenues, according to a journalism foundation.
The newspaper will be governed by a board of directors and rely on donations. But it will maintain editorial independence and enact a strict firewall between reporters and donors to prevent influence or sway, just as newspapers have long done with advertisers, the newspaper said in a news release.
The newspaper will keep its longtime and well-known editorial cartoonist, Pat Bagley, who routinely mocks the state’s Republican leaders.
One difference, though, is that the Tribune editorial board will no longer make candidate endorsements.
The plan is similar to arrangements at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Tampa Bay Times, which are owned by nonprofit foundations. The Tribune’s is different because the newspaper itself becomes a nonprofit.
The newspaper plays an important role in the state as the largest independent news outlet. The other large newspaper in the state, the Deseret News, is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church. The majority of the state’s lawmakers and about two-thirds of the state’s residents are member of the faith.
Tribune owner Paul Huntsman purchased the newspaper in 2016, leading to a period of increased stability after the newspaper had dealt with staff reductions and feared closure under the previous owner. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for a series of stories about church-owned Brigham Young University’s practice of opening honor code investigations into students who reported they were victims of sexual assault.
But financial hardships endured, and one-third of the staff was laid off in 2018. That was the fourth round of layoffs since 2011 at the Salt Lake Tribune, which now has a staff of about 60, down from 148 in 2011, according to the newspaper’s story about the announcement.
“The current business model for local newspapers is broken and beyond repair,” said Huntsman in a statement. “We needed to find a way to sustain this vital community institution well beyond my ownership, and nonprofit status will help us do that.”
Huntsman is the of son of the late Jon Huntsman Sr., a wealthy industrialist who was the patriarch of one of the most influential families in Utah, and brother of former Russia Ambassador, Jon Huntsman Jr. The Huntsman family runs a major cancer research center in Utah, and their name adorns university arenas and college programs. On Monday, the family announced it was donating $150 million to create a mental health institute for research and care at the University of Utah.
Huntsman will be the chair of the board of directors for the Salt Lake Tribune, with other members selected in the future, according to information on the newspaper’s webpage up already for tax-deductible donations that features a section of frequently asked questions.
The plan could provide a viable path forward for other newspapers, Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president, said in a statement. The national foundation, which supports journalism and the arts, will contribute $250,000 to a separate Utah foundation being created as part of the Tribune plan to support independent journalism in the state.
“The model pioneered by The Salt Lake Tribune gives community leaders another way to build a sustainable future for local news, so citizens can get the trusted information they need to engage constructively in our democracy,” Ibargüen said.