'Salt Lake Tribune' Becomes 1st Legacy Newspaper To Change To Nonprofit Structure

Nov 12, 2019
Originally published on November 13, 2019 8:45 am
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Trump administration has been good business for The New York Times and The Washington Post. Their subscriber numbers have skyrocketed over the past few years. It's a different story elsewhere in the country. Newspaper circulation numbers are down. Advertising revenue is, too. And that means many local papers continue to close their doors. Nate Hegyi of member station KUER has the story of one daily that's trying something new to stay alive.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Local newspapers do more than just give you the comics and a crossword puzzle every morning. They tell you what's going on in your town.

KATHY STEPHENSON: What buildings are going to be torn down and what's going to come in their place.

HEGYI: That's Salt Lake Tribune reporter Kathy Stephenson. She says newspapers show what your local government is up to behind closed doors.

STEPHENSON: How are they addressing environment and traffic and all the things that are really important to you and your family?

HEGYI: Stephenson would know. She's been working at the Tribune since 1982. She's seen the ups and the downs of the business. Before the Internet, newspapers like this were flush with cash from advertisements, classifieds and subscribers. But sites like Craigslist and Facebook put a damper on all that, and this has doomed many local newspapers. Last year, The Salt Lake Tribune cut a third of its staff. Stephenson is taking me on a tour of the newsroom and points to a row of empty gray cubicles.

STEPHENSON: This is a little bit of the sad part. We have a great, big newsroom that used to be filled. But as we've had layoffs, you know, it's a little lonely in certain parts of the newsroom that don't get used.

HEGYI: The Tribune was bleeding money, so it's trying something new - something that looks a little bit more like public radio. You see, earlier this month, the Tribune became the first legacy newspaper in the country to transform itself into a nonprofit organization. Instead of selling the paper for scrap metal, its owner is giving up control. The paper will still rely on subscribers and advertising, but now it can also receive tax-deductible cash donations. And it's creating an endowment to help run the paper in perpetuity.

Jennifer Napier-Pearce is the Tribune's editor-in-chief. She says the old business model...

JENNIFER NAPIER-PEARCE: It doesn't work anymore. It's broken.

HEGYI: The Tribune hopes this new model will open the door to donations from both regular folks and philanthropists who want to lift up public service journalism.

NAPIER-PEARCE: Now there's another option where people can support the paper, the institution that they love, and get a tax deduction.

HEGYI: While this business model is novel for a legacy newspaper, it isn't new. Online media outlets like The Texas Tribune, The Nevada Independent and The Montana Free Press have been running as nonprofits for a while.

Mi-Ai Parrish is a former newspaper publisher and media professor at Arizona State University.

MI-AI PARRISH: I think it makes a lot more sense than the current business model.

HEGYI: She says there's an inherent conflict in that current business model. Many papers are beholden to shareholders or corporate interests whose bottom line is making money. But she says a journalist is beholden to readers.

PARRISH: So a nonprofit model is much more reflective of the mission that we have.

HEGYI: Still, she says, it isn't a magic bullet.

PARRISH: But you can still mess it up (laughter). It still costs money to do the journalism.

HEGYI: Sometimes cash for a nonprofit news outlet only comes from one or a few big donors. So if they pull out, an organization can fail. The Salt Lake Tribune is optimistic that its new model won't fail, but editor-in-chief Jennifer Napier-Pearce is well aware that it could be an uphill climb.

NAPIER-PEARCE: We live in a pretty small state, and so I'm hoping that we can make a go of it with such a small population. That will really show whether or not this model can work for tiny town newspapers.

HEGYI: And maybe, just maybe, she says, stop the spread of America's growing news deserts.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Salt Lake City.

CORNISH: And that story comes to us from the Mountain West News Bureau, a public radio collaborative.

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