Salt Lake Tribune gets IRS approval to convert to non-profit

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake Tribune said Monday it has received approval from the IRS to convert into a non-profit as the newspaper switches to a nontraditional model that it hopes will ensure long-term stability and provide other newspapers a blueprint for survival in a sagging industry plagued by declines in advertising and circulation revenues.

The newspaper will be governed by a board of directors and rely on donations. But it will maintain editorial independence and enact a strict firewall between reporters and donors to prevent influence or sway, just as newspapers have long done with advertisers, the newspaper said in a news release.

The newspaper will keep its longtime and well-known editorial cartoonist, Pat Bagley, who routinely mocks the state’s Republican leaders.

One difference, though, is that the Tribune editorial board will no longer make candidate endorsements.

The plan is similar to arrangements at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Tampa Bay Times, which are owned by non-profit foundations. The Tribune’s is different because the newspaper itself becomes a non-profit.

The newspaper plays an important role in the state as the largest independent news outlet. The other large newspaper in the state, the Deseret News, is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church. The majority of the state’s lawmakers and about two-thirds of the state’s residents are member of the faith.

Tribune owner Paul Huntsman purchased the newspaper in 2016, leading to a period of increased stability after the newspaper had dealt with staff reductions and feared closure under the previous owner. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for a series of stories about church-owned Brigham Young University’s practice of opening honour code investigations into students who reported they were victims of sexual assault.

But financial hardships endured, and one-third of the staff was laid off in 2018. That was the fourth round of layoffs since 2011 at the Salt Lake Tribune, which now has a staff of about 60, down from 148 in 2011, according to the newspaper’s story about the announcement.

“The current business model for local newspapers is broken and beyond repair,” said Huntsman in a statement. “We needed to find a way to sustain this vital community institution well beyond my ownership, and non-profit status will help us do that.”

Huntsman is the of son of the late Jon Huntsman Sr., a wealthy industrialist who was the patriarch of one of the most influential families in Utah, and brother of former Russia Ambassador, Jon Huntsman Jr. The Huntsman family runs a major cancer research centre in Utah, and their name adorns university arenas and college programs. On Monday, the family announced it was donating $150 million to create a mental health institute for research and care at the University of Utah.

Huntsman will be the chair of the board of directors for the Salt Lake Tribune, with other members selected in the future, according to information on the newspaper’s webpage up already for tax-deductible donations that features a section of frequently asked questions.

The plan could provide a viable path forward for other newspapers, Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president, said in a statement.

“The model pioneered by The Salt Lake Tribune gives community leaders another way to build a sustainable future for local news, so citizens can get the trusted information they need to engage constructively in our democracy,” Ibargüen said.

Brady McCombs, The Associated Press