The Media Today

A not-so-brutal week for American journalism

November 5, 2019

In May—following sharp drops in circulation and ad revenue—the Salt Lake Tribune, a 148-year-old newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah, announced its intention to become a nonprofit. The Tribune’s argument—that, as a civic good in its community, it already does the work of a nonprofit—was simple; nonetheless, its application to the Internal Revenue Service, under the “educational purposes” rubric, was expected to meet with regulatory hurdles. A verdict wasn’t due until next year, so it was a surprise when the IRS contacted the paper last week and approved its request, with no strings attached. (The IRS already approved the establishment of the Utah Journalism Foundation, a separate nonprofit that will help fund the Tribune and other outlets.) Other local papers are owned by nonprofits—the Lenfest Institute for Journalism owns the Inquirer and the Daily News, in Philadelphia; the Poynter Institute owns the Tampa Bay Times, in Florida—but until now, no legacy daily had become a nonprofit in and of itself.

Nonprofit status, it seems, will open doors for the Tribune without closing too many others. The paper will now have to stay out of politics—a curiosity, given that it is owned by Paul Huntsman, scion of the Huntsman business empire, whose brother, Jon Huntsman, Jr., was governor of Utah, ran as a Republican candidate for president, and served as US ambassador to China and (until very recently) Russia. That may be no great loss, though: in May, Paul Huntsman told the New York Times that he was actually “looking forward to getting out of the endorsement business.”

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More importantly, nonprofit status will enable the Tribune to diversify its revenue streams, allowing it to seek donations and philanthropic funding while still making money off of advertising and subscriptions. (Going forward, the latter may even be tax deductible.) The paper plans to rebuild an editorial staff that has been diminished by rounds of layoffs, the most recent of which, last year, cut the newsroom by more than a third. And there’s a broader context at stake here, too: as Nieman Lab’s Christine Schmidt wrote yesterday, the Tribune’s move “opens the doors for many more commercial legacy newspapers to seek tax-deductible status and philanthropic funding—a potential lifeline for local news outlets whose owners agree to give up control.”

It’s important to stress that nonprofit status isn’t a silver bullet. Nonetheless, the Tribune’s nonprofit conversion represents inventive new thinking in a local-news landscape that desperately needs it. As Schmidt notes, important local papers are increasingly owned by big corporate chains whose intentions, in many cases, are the opposite of philanthropic. (Before Huntsman bought it, the Tribune was owned by Digital First Media, a hedge fund-backed publisher that has a particularly sharp reputation for newsroom cuts.) The biggest such chain, Gannett, is in the process of being swallowed by the second biggest, GateHouse, which is also backed by private equity. Layoffs seem sure to follow.

Smart people have been working on potential solutions to our industry hellscape for a while now; nonetheless, we seem to have seen a flourishing of late. Ken Doctor, who writes regularly for Nieman Lab, announced late last month that he’s founding a new company, called Lookout, that he says will draw on the best practices he’s observed as an industry analyst to create a scalable new model for local news. Doctor will be supported by the Knight Foundation and the Google News Initiative. The latter announced recently that it will hand Lookout and 33 other projects $5.8 million (in total) under the aegis of an “innovation challenge”; the Tribune is among the beneficiaries, with Google funding a “playbook” for other news organizations seeking to transition to nonprofit status. The Google News Initiative is also supporting The Compass Experiment, a project, run by McClatchy, that will open three “lab” newsrooms. It already launched Mahoning Matters, a news site in Youngstown, Ohio, that aims to fill part of the gap left by The Vindicator, a storied local paper that closed to national anger in the summer.

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This week, CJR’s Mathew Ingram is leading a series of discussions on Galley, CJR’s app, about alternative models for local news. He talked yesterday with Mandy Jenkins, general manager of The Compass Experiment, and with Chris Horne of The Devil Strip, an arts and culture publication in Akron, Ohio, that is transitioning to become a cooperative owned by readers, staff, and contributors. (Anyone with an Ohio address can buy in.) “Most of the inspiration for how we’re designing our co-op has come from looking at co-op microbreweries in the US and co-op pubs in the UK,” Horne told Ingram. “It matters deeply that the product is good and that they can build community that’s reciprocal instead of a business that’s mostly transactional.”

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of big companies who claim to want to fix local journalism; more broadly, philanthropy is not always a sustainable business model, and more inventive fixes aren’t commonly feasible at scale. Nonetheless, innovation is clearly welcome, and the Tribune’s new model, in particular, could help similarly situated papers out of a hole. Jennifer Napier-Pearce, the paper’s editor, told Nieman Lab’s Schmidt that it could have tailored its appeal to the IRS much more closely to its own, specific circumstances, but intentionally kept things broad: “We wanted maximum flexibility so other people could tinker with this recipe for their particular needs.”

Below, more on local news:

  • Coming attractions: Over on Galley, Ingram has interviews lined up with Elizabeth Hansen, who runs the News Sustainability and Business Models program at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center; Mari Cohen, a senior editor at South Side Weekly, a nonprofit outlet in Chicago; Emily Ramshaw, of the Texas Tribune; Jim Brady, from Spirited Media; and Teresa Gorman, of the Democracy Fund. You can follow their conversations here. (ICYMI, Cohen wrote recently for CJR that “Chicago is America’s news lab.”)
  • Lawmakers on the case, I: In June, CJR’s Andrew McCormick tracked two bills in Congress aimed at helping the news industry: one would give outlets a temporary “safe harbor” from antitrust rules, to boost their negotiating power; the other would make it easier for news organizations to seek nonprofit status. (In light of the IRS’s surprisingly permissive ruling on the Tribune, it’s not immediately clear whether this is still needed.)
  • Lawmakers on the case, II: In New York, two state lawmakers are proposing legislation that would require cable companies operating in the state to offer a local news channel. If passed, the bill “would be the first of its kind in the country,” Vivian Wang writes for the Times. Governor Andrew Cuomo already signaled his support.
  • Reasons to be skeptical: Following the announcement of The Compass Experiment, in March, Emily Bell wrote for CJR that tech companies such as Google “care about journalism in the same way I care about clean water and aircraft safety—deeply and often—but this does not qualify me to be involved in its development. Facebook, Apple, and Google do things that journalists should be investigating, not profiting from.”
  • Community mistrust: In new research for CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Andrea Wenzel and Letrell Deshan Crittenden assess how to make suburban news more inclusive. “As funders seek to intervene in the collapse of local news, we must explore whether and how these interventions center the marginalized people so often overlooked by legacy newsrooms,” they write.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.