Trib’s Pulitzer Prize doesn’t guarantee future survival

Congratulations to the staff of The Salt Lake Tribune for winning a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the scandal at BYU in the Mormon-owed university’s treatment and investigations of women students who were victims of sexual abuse.

For those who don’t realize this, such a prize is the pinnacle of journalism in the United States – and recognized as such across the world.

The Trib had won a previous prize years ago on its reporting of a mid-air collision of two passenger planes over the Grand Canyon – a spot news award category that is no longer given.

Let us hope that this year’s award will be the impetus for the newspaper to regain financial stability in the challenging years ahead.

But, as we’ve so unfortunately seen over the last decade in the crazy economic collapse of so many really fine newspapers, achieving great journalism is no such guarantee.

I’m not trying to throw cold water on the Trib staff’s achievement. Accolades all around.

But what needs to happen now is for Utahns to get behind the state’s largest newspaper and ensure it’s financial future – with the Pulitzer as a rallying point.

So sadly, any number of Pulitzer Prize-winning publications have struggled, or gone under, or been radically changed in recent years.

The boneyard:

  • The Rocky Mountain News in Denver won a number of prizes, only to fold several years ago and go out of business.
  • The San Jose Mercury News was one of the great American newspapers, winning such awards, and has now been folded into several other papers.
  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer won two prizes and now is just an online publication.

The list goes on and on.

While it is true that the Tribune’s new owner, Paul Huntsman of the Jon M. Huntsman Sr.’s extended family, has deep financial pockets, the Tribune’s former owners – a New York hedge fund – stripped the paper of all of its real assets.

As politically savvy Utahns know, the hedge fund sold the relatively-new presses to the Deseret News (wholly owned by the LDS Church), sold off any real estate properties – including the old Tribune Building on Main Street — and a block where the old NAC used to be on west 5th South, and such.

The Trib now leases offices at the Gateway, with its only real assets its computer systems, its staff, and its subscription list.

A new joint operating agreement several years ago gave the News 70 percent of the NAC/now Media One joint operating agreement profits to the News, only 30 percent to the Tribune.

When Huntsman bought the Trib last year – in a clear effort to save it financially – Church leaders agreed to modify the financial split – now 60-40 percent for the DN, with the Trib getting 10 percentage points more in profits, from 30 percent to 40 percent.

But here is the clincher: When the current JOA runs out in 2020, the DN/Mormon Church will own the presses, own the advertising operation and the printing and distribution operations.

Unless Church leaders agree to a new JOA, with a split for the Trib at some profit sharing level, the Trib could be in real financial trouble…again.

Media One already prints – as a jobber – several other local publications, including the Rocky Mountain edition of the New York Times.

The Trib could find itself in the same situation: The DN would print the Trib, handle advertising if desired and delivery. But it could be at a flat jobber rate – with the Trib getting no guaranteed profit share of Media One since it has no ownership in Media One.

Rumor has it that the DN and Tribune’s printed newspaper edition subscriptions are way down from recent years.

The DN has gotten a national newspaper subscription service to include in its daily tallies the paper’s “international edition” – an odd decision by the service — which bumps up the DN’s subscription numbers.

And the Tribune has drastically cut back on printed delivery papers to rural parts of the state.

Basically, the Trib makes its money in Salt Lake County through printed newspaper sales.

Like so many other newspapers, the Trib has moved its emphasis to online subscriptions – and before the 2020 JOA deadline, it may become just an online publication – maybe with a Sunday or two or three day a week printed paper option, it if can make money on those printed papers.

Can the Pulitzer – certainly well deserved this year – kick start a financial rebirth of the Trib, especially online where its future may lie?

Let’s hope so.

Winning the highest journalist award on a story involving the most power institution in the state – the LDS Church – should embolden not only Paul Huntsman, the editors and, reporters – but every Utahn who want a journalist arm that can feel free to cover all of the state’s powerbrokers.

The Pulitzer couldn’t have come at a better time for the Tribune.

Now let’s hope Utahns of all stripes will recognize what a journalistic treasure it has – and financially step up and support “Utah’s Independent Voice.”