As UtahPolicy.comfirst reported Tuesday evening, The Salt Lake Tribune is moving from a for-profit newspaper to a non-profit media outlet run by a foundation, which will raise all kinds of questions for the largest statewide newspaper.
Will it continue to produce a printed daily paper – seven days a week as it does now?
Or will the newspaper only be online, as it now offers, with an online-only subscription (one of the current options)?
In a Tribune story running Wednesday, those questions are unclear – as are several other issues.
Tribune owner Paul Huntsman, of the family of the late billionaire/philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., said details are now being worked out and moving to a nonprofit foundation owning is a “work in progress.”
The new foundation ownership operation should start sometime in early 2020.
Newspapering is a competitive business, with reporters, editors and photographers daily working on getting “scoops” – the news first in its most complete form.
The Tribune’s competitors are not just the Deseret News – the other daily, statewide printed and online newspaper in Utah.
TV news operations, to a lesser extent radio news, and even a few specialized online-only news operations – like UtahPolicy.com – are also hustling to get their news products out first to the reading, viewing and listening public.
In these times of “instant” news publication, providing news a day or two later gives little incentive for a news consumer to take your product – free or paid for.
So if the Tribune remains an aggressive news operation – it won a Pulitzer Prize several years ago – but operates as a non-profit foundation, well, all kinds of issues arise.
Here are some definitions of what nonprofit foundations do, how they are organized.
Huntsman told a Tribune staff meeting that he would move to set up the newspaper as a 501(c)(3) foundation.
In theory, that could be a foundation like, but separate from, what the Huntsman family already has – the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, that helps run the cancer research operation and hospital high on the eastern foothills alongside the University of Utah Medical Center.
Huntsman told the newspaper staff that the new foundation might operate as a public broadcasting station, like the U.’s KUED TV or KUER radio.
Those groups hold twice annual fund-raising drives, asking listeners for tax-exempt donations, and provide a variety of “gifts” – like coffee mugs or exclusive gatherings/events – for financial supporters.
Perhaps, said Huntsman, the “donations” would result in printed or online newspaper subscriptions instead of coffee mugs.
And community groups, like the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, could even sponsor certain parts of the newspaper, like arts or community events coverage.
All this sounds interesting – a newspaper genuinely supported by the community and producing a news product for that community.
But there are all kinds of questions about conflict of interest and how, if at all, taxpayer-funded institutions would end up, somehow, subsidizing the Tribune foundation.
The Utah Legislature, nearly every year, provides a “grant” or “donation” of one kind or another to the Huntsman Cancer Hospital/Institute – historically as part of the state’s tobacco lawsuit settlement proceeds with big tobacco producers.
That annual amount varies as the tobacco settlement monies have dwindled in recent years – but runs into several million dollars a year.
The Legislature also gives “grants’ to all kinds of community arts groups – like Ballet West or the Utah Opera.
Would the Tribune Foundation be expecting such a taxpayer direct donation?
Any number of legislators would have trouble with that one, I can tell you.
But there are other kinds of less direction taxpayer help, also.
Where will the “new” Tribune be housed?
UtahPolicy.com is told that the current for-profit Tribune’s lease at the Gateway (a nice office space), is costing Huntsman tens of thousands of dollars a month.
KUED and KUER are housed in rent-free, property tax-free offices on the University of Utah campus – a large subsidy by taxpayers.
The Huntsman Corp. headquarters are in a huge building on the eastern edge of the University of Utah Research Park – and there may be space in that privately-owned facility for the newspaper operations.
But does a nonprofit newspaper operation fit into what the park is supposed to be? Here is a definition of what the park is.
Technically, the park land is owned by the University of Utah.
The Tribune currently has a public opinion polling relationship with the Hinckley Institute of Politics, which is now housed in a new building where the old Orson Spencer Hall used to be on the U. campus.
Tribune pays half of the polling cost, and editors help formulate poll questions, and the newspaper gets exclusive first publication rights with stories written by newspaper reporters.
In the local competitive news business, such an arrangement with a taxpayer-funded university institute is a great advantage for the Tribune – justified by the newspaper paying part of the cost.
Jason Perry, head of the Hinckley Institute and vice president for communications for the U., tells UtahPolicy.com that he doesn’t know if the Tribune will want to, or be able to, continue the partnership after the paper becomes a non-profit.
While such poll stories may not “sell” newspapers as once may have been the case, they certainly result in online “hits” by interested readers, and such “hits” do result in online advertising dollars to either a for-profit or non-profit news operation.
And the Tribune newspaper product is burnished with such polling stories.
UtahPolicy.com has been doing private polling (with accompanying news stories) with Dan Jones & Associates for several years, but that arrangement has recently ended.
Foundation-owned newspapers really can’t get involved in advocacy politics, so Huntsman says it’s likely the Tribune won’t be able to endorse political candidates.
But what about editorially endorsing public issues, like ballot propositions, bond elections, or even votes on changing local forms of governments?
Could the Tribune editorial page be neutered, could columnists or editorial cartoonists find that they can’t comment on major issues or individuals of the day?
The Tribune is now seen as a progressive, Democratic-leaning news/editorial product.
Editorial cartoonist Pat Bagley is brilliant in lampooning Republican President Donald Trump, congressional Republicans and the Utah Legislature.
Even at times the LDS Church.
Will potential Tribune Foundation donors want to be associated with such hardnosed political displays?
How will its liberal readers respond to a foundation-owned newspaper that can’t, or won’t, be advocates like it once was?
I remember some time ago talking to a KUER radio reporter after a very critical news story broke about then-Sen. Orrin Hatch.
He said something like: “I don’t want an angry, powerful U.S. senator mad at us over reporting this, when PBS funding (by Congress) is now on the line.”