Q&A: Nancy Conway, The Salt Lake Tribune

The Trib's newly-retired editor discusses the paper's vital presence in its conservative community and what reporters there should cover now

PROVO, UT — Nancy Conway, the first woman to lead The Salt Lake Tribune newsroom in the paper’s 142-year history, announced her retirement in September. Conway grew up in a hard-scrabble neighborhood outside of Boston, served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s, and stumbled into a job in journalism after earning a degree in English. Her career has included various positions at Dean Singleton’s newspapers across the country—a reporter at The Amherst (MA) Record (where she met Singleton), the first female editor and publisher of the York (PA) Dispatch, metro editor at the Denver Post—and in 2003 she took on the top editor role at the Tribune. The paper profiled the “trailblaz[ing]” editor on October 1, and in Conway’s October 19 farewell column, she called the Tribune “essential” in its community, “in a culture still deeply influenced by the [LDS] church.” She has led a newsroom deeply committed to robust coverage of politics and has supported a two-person Washington bureau, the last of its kind for any Utah media outlet. (Disclosure: in recent years I wrote a column about open government and First Amendment issues for the Tribune.)

I caught up with Conway recently as she makes retirement plans to eventually move from Utah, write, and spend some time in Portugal. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

The bookends of your career at the Tribune have been marked by some tough times for the paper’s staff. You came in on the heels of the Trib’s so-called Elizabeth Smart scandal, when two reporters sold information to the National Enquirer and your predecessor left the paper. Just recently, the Tribune announced a 20 percent reduction in staff, which you described as “a blow” to the paper. How does a newsroom leader deal with staff morale during such times?

In the end, what you want to do is stay focused on journalism and what you are doing. It is sort of a variation of “keep your eyes on the prize.” [Journalists] have to remember why they are there and that what [they] are doing is important. It helped us get through the turmoil the newsroom was in over the [National Enquirer] saga and [retirement of former editor] Jay Shelledy.

I think it is what keeps [the Tribune’s newsroom] together now. It is what has kept us together in the cuts and decline of print. Because there is always the need for good journalism. … Even though you are going to deliver the news in different format, different presentation, different vehicle…mobile or whatever. It is still journalism. The world needs journalism now just as much as it ever has.

Reflect on things the Tribune was able to accomplish during your tenure.

One of the things I think the Trib does really well is be consistent in its coverage. I know that sounds a little boring to people sometimes, but that is [how] you get closest to the truth, when you cover something and then you go back at it, and go back at it. That’s because you don’t get it all in one interview or one report. And things change so quickly.

What are some of the topics you kept on covering?

I am really big on watchdog stuff, investigative stuff and enterprise stuff. Maybe in the end that could be the biggest contribution of newspapers or legacy organizations. At the same time, some of the best stuff we have done is breaking news. What comes to mind is Trolley Square [coverage of the 2007 mall shooting in Salt Lake City]. That was breaking news, you had to be on top of it and at the same time you had to follow up and had to investigate. Some of it was old-fashioned beat reporting. Some of it was Freedom of Information Act stuff.

In 2011, the Utah Legislature passed sweeping changes to Utah’s public records law, Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), with little public debate. The ill-conceived bill, HB477, was eventually repealed after the Utah media and a broad coalition of citizens opposed the measure. Many loudly criticized how quickly the measure sailed through the legislative process.

You and the Tribune took a leading role in fighting the law, including printing rare front-page editorials. At the time, some criticized Utah media for moving beyond its role as objective chronicler to that of an advocate. What do you say to those who criticized what the Tribune did to oppose the passage of this law?

Getting HB477 repealed was a huge victory for journalism in Utah. … It is our business to protect the public’s access to government records. It is our mission to advocate for the public. That’s why we put those two editorials on the front page. That is why we took such a strong stand. I am not sure GRAMA had ever been threatened that way. HB477 would have eviscerated GRAMA. …We did not compromise our coverage. When you cover a story that involves you, you cover yourself just like you would cover everyone else. I feel like we did that.

Some say that journalism is going through a disruption like some many other businesses. What is your take on that?

I understand and believe the disruption theory, but the fact is that the present builds itself on the past. I don’t think you can throw anything out. I think the danger in the disruption theory is that you do that, you discard the important part of journalism—that’s doing basic reporting.

How do you keep other things from distracting newsrooms from their central responsibility to journalism?

Every newsroom in the country is facing that now. The digital revolution and the economy have had very deep impact on the business of journalism. … It would be nice to know we have a strong business model we could develop and know we could be safe and able to our jobs as journalists, but we don’t know that. I think that is the biggest distraction today

The Tribune is now tied to a hedge fund [Alden Global Capital, which controls the Tribune’s owner, MediaNews.] Does that concern you?

Of course. … Listen. Journalism went from being family-owned businesses to corporate ownership and consolidated businesses. To me that is a problem. That is an issue.

What should journalists focus on?

Tip O’Neill said “all politics is local.” All journalism is local. That means knowing your community and reflecting your community. Warren Buffet has said the legacy news organizations that will survive will have strong identities and the ones that reflect communities with strong identities. I believe that.

What issues should journalists in Utah and the West be covering or thinking about more?

The environment is really important. Air quality. Water, water, water and water…the Colorado River and, in Utah, the Snake Valley water project [the project proposed to tap a southern Utah water aquifer and pipe water to thirsty Las Vegas]. Those are really important. Those are huge things for the West.

You know they need to cover politics because everything is political. Politics motivate everything. It seems for Utah there should be focus on election reform. We have a de facto one-party state. There are not even primaries, just caucuses. Here, it is a group of activists who determine what is going to happen. That really needs to be addressed.

It may be a cliché question, but how do you want your time at The Salt Lake Tribune to be remembered?

I want my time at the Tribune remembered as one in pursuit of good journalism and succeeding in good journalism. In the end, that is the most important thing. … I love newspapers, l love news, I love supporting journalism.

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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell. Tags: , , , ,