The Salt Lake Tribune, now a nonprofit, reports that it’s healthy and growing

Salt Lake City. Photo (cc) 2011 by Jazz Spain.

You sometimes hear that nonprofit status is not a solution to the local news crisis. After all, just because a media outlet is a nonprofit doesn’t mean it’s exempt from having to bring in revenue and balance its books.

True. But nonprofit ownership also means local ownership invested in the community. Which is why the latest news from The Salt Lake Tribune, the largest daily paper in Utah, is so heartening.

According to a recent update from Lauren Gustus, the executive editor, the Tribune is growing. The newsroom, she writes, is 23% larger than it was a year ago, with the paper adding a three-member Innovation Lab reporting team and beefing up its reporting, digital and editing operations. After cutting back to just one print edition each week, it’s adding a second. The Tribune is also taking care of its employees, she says, providing much-needed equipment to its photographers as well as a 401(k) match and parental leave.

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

The Tribune was acquired from the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2016 by Paul Huntsman, part of a politically connected Utah family. As I wrote for GBH News in 2019, Huntsman, like many civic-minded publishers before him, discovered that owning a newspaper isn’t as easy as he might have imagined. He was forced to cut the staff in order to make ends meet before hitting on the idea of transforming the Tribune into the first large nonprofit newspaper in the country.

Nonprofit ownership makes it easier to raise tax-deductible grant money from foundations, and it transforms the subscription model into a membership model. Done right, the audience feels invested in the news organization in a way that it generally doesn’t with a for-profit newspaper.

One disadvantage is that nonprofit news organizations are constrained from some traditional newspaper functions, including having a robust editorial page that endorses political candidates. On the latest episode of our podcast, “What Works,” Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen told Ellen Clegg and me that’s why he and his older brother, John, the publisher, have kept their paper for-profit.

What the Cullens have done instead is set up a nonprofit organization called the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation that can receive tax-deductible donations to support the Times and several other papers. It’s a model similar to that used by news outlets as large as The Philadelphia Inquirer and as small as The Colorado Sun and The Provincetown Independent.

The local news crisis will not be solved by a single model, and there’s plenty of room for nonprofits, for-profits and hybrids. What’s taking place in Salt Lake is important, and is sure to be watched by other news executives.

“The Tribune will welcome more journalists in 2022,” writes Gustus, “because you’ve told us many times over that this is what you want and because if we are not holding those in public office to account, there are few others who will.”

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