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Salt Lake Tribune Becomes First U.S. Newspaper To Transition To Nonprofit Model

Photo of an issue of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Chelsea Naughton
The Salt Lake Tribune announced Monday it will become a nonprofit organization.

The Salt Lake Tribune announced Monday the IRS has approved its request to become a nonprofit. The paper was surprised to learn Friday that the approval came quicker than expected, and makes The Tribune the first for-profit newspaper in the country to transition to a non-profit model. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce about the news.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo of Jennifer Napier-Pearce.
Credit Photo courtesy of Jennifer Napier-Pearce.
Jennifer Napier-Pearce is The Salt Lake Tribune's editor.

Caroline Ballard: What does this transition to being a nonprofit organization mean for The Salt Lake Tribune?

Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Right now, we have a sole owner. His name is Paul Huntsman. He bought the paper in 2016. But after several years where there was not a long-term sustainability plan in place, he knew that if something happened to him — there goes the paper. 

We searched for months to find a way that would allow us the financial support that we're going to need going into the next 150 years. We did a lot of digging and talking to other nonprofit news organizations across the country, [and] we just decided that this was the path that we wanted to pursue. 

The Salt Lake Tribune will be the first newspaper to make that transition. We applied to the IRS in the spring and we just got our approvals last Friday. And we're very, very thrilled and excited to share this with the community.

CB: What are the next steps in transitioning to a nonprofit, and what's that going to look like in the near-term and long-term?

JNP: We will be transitioning to a board of directors like all nonprofits, and so the paper will be governed by this board that is representative of the community. We are putting that board together as we speak. 

We're fast-tracking a lot of things that we thought we would have more time to complete, which is a very good problem to have. The second thing is The Salt Lake Tribune has a contractual relationship with the Deseret News. We have been in a joint operating agreement with them since the 1950s. That contract is set to expire in 2020, and so there are some considerations there with our print partnership. 

So, that needs to be completed before our transition will be complete, or at least we'll have to redefine our relationship as a nonprofit. So there's that. 

But the reality is our values, our news, our mission will not change. The Tribune has always been dedicated to the highest quality of journalism, and I think people recognize that. How the business structure looks on the back end, that will change. I guess the only thing that readers might notice is that we are not going to be doing political endorsements of candidates anymore. That's forbidden by federal law for nonprofits.

CB: As The Salt Lake Tribune becomes a nonprofit, what is the overall revenue strategy? Any tote bags in the future?

JNP: We have been reliant as a for-profit on advertising and circulation. So, subscriptions. Now we have a third leg to the stool, which is philanthropy. We can solicit donations, and there may be some incentives. Honestly, we have not put together the structure of how people can donate for us. We'll probably be looking for some guidance and suggestions from the community on that. But yeah, there might be a tote bag in there.

CB: Why is The Tribune the first paper of record to make this jump to becoming a nonprofit?

JNP: It's interesting. We spoke with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and they said that they had made a play similar to this about 15 years ago. And the IRS, to shut them down, said, “Don't even ask. It's not even worth your time to apply.” 

I think that has sort of had a chilling effect, and a lot of newspapers did not think it was possible. We figured, look, you're not going to know unless you try it. I think it's an idea whose time has come. We're really, really hopeful.

Our application to the IRS was very much open ended and we did not get a lot of guidance from them on what we could do and what we can't do.

They basically said we're a nonprofit based on our application, and so we have a lot of latitude. We're hoping that this is a model that not just works for The Tribune, but that works for local newspapers across the country. Local newspapers have been suffering. There have been over 2,000 that have closed since 2004.

That's a lot of journalism that is not happening, and we need to find a long-term solution — a sustainability formula that will sustain us. So we are very, very encouraged and hopeful that this is a way that people can support their local newspapers and keep them thriving for a long time.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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