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?