Nearly 150 years of for-profit newsgathering is coming to a close after the Salt Lake Tribune got word earlier this month that the IRS approved its petition to become the first nonprofit newspaper in the country.
The announcement has settled the nerves of a staff that has seen its ranks cut by one third after winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. It has also provided a ray of hope for other publications looking for a sustainable model in an age of dwindling subscriptions and shrinking advertising revenue.
Tribune editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce, who was recently interviewed for the latest E&P Reports podcast, explained, “This means we have hope for long-term sustainability. I think a lot of local newspapers have just been struggling to the point where thousands have closed, and that’s just not acceptable for our owner, Paul Huntsman. He really wanted to find a sustainability model that would go well beyond his ownership, and really serve this community in the way that it has since 1871. What it means is that local news, local investigative, deep watchdog reporting will be strong in Salt Lake City, and throughout the state of Utah for a long time to come.”
The relatively quick approval from the IRS actually caught the Tribune staff by surprise, according to Napier-Pearce. She said lawyers expected more wrangling with the IRS as this was the first petition of its type from a legacy newspaper. Arguments over sports coverage and restaurant reviews never surfaced.
“We absolutely had to scramble to get a donate button. We didn’t have that on our website yet,” she said. “We didn’t have any language explaining what this transition meant for people.”
Napier-Pearce said they worked out those details over the first weekend in November and made the official announcement that Monday, Nov. 4. Now work is underway to restructure the paper from the sole ownership of Utah businessman Paul Huntsman to a nonprofit run by a board of directors.
“This is months ahead of when we had anticipated doing the big switch,” she said. “We thought it would be in the end of first quarter next year. I would suspect that maybe in the next three to four months, we’ll be ready to be a full-on nonprofit.”
The only change in coverage will come on the editorial pages where the Tribune can no longer make political endorsements. Opinions, political cartoons, sports, reviews and entertainment coverage will continue.
Meanwhile, Napier-Pearce said the Tribune has been contacted by other publications interested in pursuing the nonprofit model. Nonprofit newsgathering is nothing new. The Institute for Nonprofit News reports 211 members. The Tribune is even leading the development of the Utah Journalism Foundation to support local and independent newsgathering plus scholarships.
Napier-Pearce would not identify which outlets had reached out, but Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, the nonprofit owner of the for-profit Tampa Bay Times, said not to expect a rush of filings from local papers.
“This is the paper that wasn’t making a profit and it probably wasn’t going to, but it’s very different from a chain ownership where they’re trying to make sure every property contributes to the bottom line,” Edmonds said. “I think it’s absolutely worth trying. Others may be interested in it, but it’s not going to be appealing to a chain ownership. And some places may not wish to give up the ability to do endorsements and that kind of thing.”