Salt Lake has been lucky to stay a two-paper town this long

The job I really wanted in my last ward was to be in charge of the newsletter. “My first act,” I told people, “would be to change the name from the Crystal City Courier to the Crystal City Courier-Gazette!”

Joking, of course, that even our humble newsletter was affected by the implosion of American journalism that had forced so many two-paper towns to become one-paper towns. If Seattle had the Post-Intelligencer and Chicago had the Sun-Times, then we should have a Courier-Gazette!

It was a joke, but of course the reality isn’t funny. The wonderfully disruptive technology that allows you to read this from the palm of your hand has made a lot of people rich, but the traditional American journalism complex is not one of them. I mean, if Warner Bros. really wants to update “Superman for the 21st Century!” they’d have the Daily Planet become the Daily Planet-Inquisitor and have Clark Kent go on a two-month furlough before being laid off.

This reality hit those of us who follow the #utpol hashtag again this week when dismal news broke about The Salt Lake Tribune: 34 staffers cut, print circulation in decline, ad revenue down 40 percent, $1 million fruitlessly spent on website upgrades.

There is also the sense of inevitability that this is just another step toward an unavoidable end. The modern media environment has plenty of money for cat videos, millionaire fashion vloggers, and nerds talking endlessly about comic book movies (like I just did). But real journalism? Alas, there’s none.

Beyond the fact that I have life-long friends and colleagues who will be personally affected by this, and future, changes at the Trib, the paper’s slow death disturbs me professionally too.

I have been very openly critical of the Trib for its adversarial stance toward the (ahem) dominant culture in Utah, picked fights with their reporters on social media, and even made fun of them when the Huntsman family had to rescue them. But it still serves an important purpose. And I was sure glad the Trib was there when I leveraged its independent voice to suit my own needs.

Though I am frequently rankled by the Tribune’s editorial bias – which of course they have, the same as every other news outlet ever – even I acknowledge that the state is better off with them than without them. It’s better to have more trained, critical eyes looking at the powerful than fewer. The phrase “We don’t want to see that headline in the Tribune” keeps a lot of people more honest than they’d be otherwise.

Patronage is one way that some newspapers have stayed alive – Jeff Bezos has owned The Washington Post for five years, though I’ve never been sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The Hunstmans have tried that with the Trib and it doesn’t seem to be working. Mergers are another way, but that seems impossible for Salt Lake City.

See, I don’t think that the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune could ever merge the way papers in Seattle and Chicago did. For Utah’s two papers to serve their respective functions, they need to be their own entities. Given the freedom that other contributors and I enjoy here, I wouldn’t even want Utah Policy to get absorbed by another paper.

So the best of luck to everyone at The Tribune. Hopefully, there’s a way forward, but even if there isn’t, Salt Lake has been lucky to stay a two-paper town this long.