In conjunction with our ethics conference, “Journalism Ethics & Local News Now” (April 23, 2021), we are publishing case studies of each news organizations represented on our panel “Innovations in Local News.”
The Salt Lake Tribune
The Salt Lake Tribune’s mission is to serve as Utah’s independent voice and to tell stories that are interesting, important and inclusive. The Salt Lake Tribune is also in a unique position. It’s the only major metro legacy news organization to transition into a nonprofit organization and the first to get IRS approval, which took place in October 2019. According to Executive Director Lauren Gustus, the past year has brought still more changes. In December of 2020, The Tribune separated from its partner news organization, Deseret News, and from a 70-year old arrangement wherein a company sold papers and advertising on behalf of both organizations. “We’re 150 years old in 2021, but it feels as though we are a startup,” Gustus said.
Once owned by a hedge fund, the Salt Lake Tribune’s transition to a nonprofit organization has been a major project.
A large part of the transition has been identifying a board for the newsroom, deciding how to position the board publicly and what transparency with the public should look like. “Ultimately, it was important to us as journalists that we publicly state that the board has no day-to-day oversight of the operations of the news organization,” Gustus said. This way, both the journalists and the public know that what it does is not impacted by the board.
Identifying donors was also a major component of the transition. The newsroom decided to share information about their major donors on their website updates the list on a quarterly basis. Anyone who has donated to the news organization can also be found on their 990 form.
The Salt Lake Tribune recently launched an Innovation Lab, which is a three person team dedicated to covering how Utah is set to double in population in the next 30 years. The premise of the project is that elected officials aren’t able to solve everything. Entirely supported by philanthropy, the lab looks at current and upcoming challenges and works to provide solutions for issues related to the state’s growth.
Other projects include the Utah News Collaborative, which focuses on how to get more journalism to more communities given that Utah has gone from 450 journalists to fewer than 200. This project aims to talk with publishers up and down the state of Utah and especially in rural communities. Participating news organizations can also publish daily stories from The Tribune on their sites and in print. “We are continuing to prepare for that accountability collaboration launch, which will officially lift off with all of the partners this month. We’re pretty excited about where we might take that,” Gustus said.
“If there’s a north star for us, it’s sustainability,” Gustus said. “Can the Tribune be profitable as a non-profit, such that we can demonstrate that this model works?” To do that, Gustus explained that the newsroom needs to more deeply understand what their readers are telling them and what people and Utah want from them.
Gustus said that the different beats within the Tribune need to listen to feedback from readers, and to have those conversations one-to-one, so that the newsroom is truly in service to the state of Utah. Gustus believes that this effort will lead to more digital support, digital subscriber growth, donor support and advertising support, which will ultimately get the newsroom to greater economic sustainability in 2021.
Inside The Salt Lake Tribune’s plans to become a nonprofit (Lenfest Institute)