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Nov. 29, 2021, 8 a.m.
Business Models

Now nonprofit, The Salt Lake Tribune has achieved something rare for a local newspaper: financial sustainability

The Salt Lake Tribune’s transition to nonprofit status has been closely watched in the news industry. “The opportunity for us to prove that this can work is significant and so is the responsibility.”

The Salt Lake Tribune has plenty to celebrate in 2021. The first (and so far only) major newspaper to become a nonprofit is financially sustainable and, after years of layoffs and cuts, is growing its newsroom. Executive editor Lauren Gustus announced the news in a note to readers in which the relief of escaping hedge fund ownership was palpable.

“We celebrate 150 years this year and we are healthy,” Gustus wrote. “We are sustainable in 2021, and we have no plans to return to a previously precarious position.”

It’s been quite the turnaround. Utah’s largest newspaper escaped the clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2016 only to see its local owner, Paul Huntsman, lay off a third of staff two years later in the face of plunging ad revenue. In 2019, The Tribune made history as the first daily newspaper to become a nonprofit. And then amid the height of the pandemic last year, the Tribune ended a 149-year run of printing a daily newspaper and a 68-year-old joint partnership with the Deseret News.

(The Tribune, which once enjoyed a daily circulation nearing 200,000, had about 36,000 subscribers when the decision to move to a weekly print edition was announced. The Deseret News, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also stopped publishing its daily print edition.)

Gustus pointed out that hundreds of American newspapers are owned by financial institutions with a well-deserved reputation for making every newspaper they touch worse by gutting newsrooms, selling off assets, and jacking up subscription prices for readers. Gustus herself joined the Tribune from McClatchy (owned by a hedge fund) and spent years at Gannett (once managed by one hedge fund, and now deeply in debt to a different one). Her note to readers has “hedge fund” in the headline and URL. Clearly, she has thoughts! When I asked Gustus about leading a news organization that was once owned by Alden and seeing the effect hedge fund ownership has had on other newsrooms, however, she chose her words carefully.

“I believe that there are differences in quality of ownership. Here’s what I will say, with a feeling that it’s really difficult to communicate [this] over the phone or in an interview. The journalists that I worked with in Sacramento or in Fresno, or in Fort Collins or Reno, are no less committed than any of the journalists here at the Tribune,” Gustus said. “That commitment that persists to doing the best that they can for the communities that they serve is real.”

The Salt Lake Tribune’s transition to nonprofit status has been closely watched in the news industry. Does that put additional pressure on Gustus and the rest of the Tribune team? “The opportunity for us to prove that this can work is significant and so is the responsibility,” she said.

The Tribune grew its newsroom 23% in the last year and will add new reporting roles focused on education, business, solutions journalism, food, and culture in 2022. Gustus also expects to follow the Utah News Collaborative (launched in April to make the Tribune’s reporting available to any news organization in the state) with more multi-newsroom projects centered on saving the Great Salt Lake and the centenary of the Colorado River Compact.

Other changes include introducing six weeks of paid parental leave and a 401(k) match for employees. In response to readers who said they missed the “daily drumbeat” amid the weekend edition’s in-depth reporting, the newsroom will publish an e-edition to accompany the Sunday paper. They’re also introducing a second printed edition — delivered by mail, rather than carriers — on Wednesdays at no additional cost to subscribers.

The Salt Lake Tribune draws revenue chiefly from subscriptions, donations, and advertising. (Dissolving that joint operating agreement with the Deseret News has also allowed the Tribune to sell its own ads and print subscriptions.) Subscribers pay for a digital subscription ($80/year), while “supporting subscribers” ($150/year) add a donation on top. In the donations category, members of The First Amendment Society pledge to donate at least $1,000/year for three years while major donors provide one-off gifts and grants.

The Tribune has about 6,500 supporting subscribers, more than 50 members of its First Amendment Society, and dozens of major donors. (In a bid for transparency, The Tribune forbids donations over $5,000 to be anonymous. You can see the full list here.) Gustus stressed that consistency of support is invaluable.

“We are so grateful to them [supporting subscribers] because it enables us to plan for philanthropic commitments. We’re not surprised and we can be more strategic about how we invest those resources,” Gustus said. “The First Amendment Society enables us to do the same thing, which is to plan our coverage and our investments because they have planned theirs. We are consistently engaged in conversations about what the value proposition is for each of those cohorts, and how we can continue to refine it and to continue to deliver for each of those groups.”

Gustus says that being “relatively lean” — the newsroom currently stands around 33 reporters, with a handful of open positions — sometimes lends itself to some unusual experiments. The Salt Lake Tribune’s NBA beat writer, Andy Larsen, told his sizable Twitter following he wanted to get 500 new subscribers for the Tribune by the end of the year.

Larsen had to clarify that this was his own idea and not something his bosses were making him do. (“Nobody ran it by me,” Gustus said.) Requests ranged from speaking to a college journalism class and tracking down a Tribune story in the archive to using “ham sandwich” in an upcoming article and helping with math homework. Roughly 24 hours after his first tweet, the thread had earned The Tribune 82 new subscribers. In November, roughly halfway through the self-assigned challenge, Larsen said that number had grown to 294 new subscribers.

“Andy is a gift to Utah,” Gustus said, noting that Larsen wrote a popular column that dug into Covid data in the state when professional basketball ground to a halt. “He has really taken his curiosity and run with it. He started asking a lot of great questions. What kind of reporting drives subscriptions? What is the value of a subscription? I want us to be here forever, so how do I help?”

Looking ahead to 2022, Gustus was brimming with ideas for the newly-enlarged newsroom. The Tribune will continue to investigate the dark history of Indigenous boarding schools in the state, start a conversation about the long-term impacts of children being educated during the pandemic, address water resource issues, and make sure readers have the information they need to vote in November elections.

Gustus says The Salt Lake Tribune will also be wrestling with what it means to be a nonprofit news organization, beyond its official 501(c)(3) tax status.

“2021 has been all about finding stability for the Tribune,” Gustus said. “We are so happy to say we’ve arrived in that spot and we don’t want to go back to where we were. In 2022, I think we’ve got to do a better job at defining what it means to be a nonprofit news organization in this community.”

This means asking questions like: How will The Tribune balance the need for digital subscriber growth with a commitment to bringing more news and information to more people in Utah? How will it include voices that have gone underrepresented throughout The Tribune’s long history?

Gustus added, “I think we need to continue that conversation, as we look to not only demonstrate that there is a path and here is the path from a structural standpoint, but also what it means be a nonprofit news organization with these legacy roots.”

Photo of Salt Lake City by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 29, 2021, 8 a.m.
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