Mega-Innovation Award Finalist: The Salt Lake Tribune

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Congratulations to The Salt Lake Tribune, one of the finalists for the 2020 Mega-Innovation Award. The entry was presented at the Mega-Conference by Fraser Nelson, vice president of business innovation.

Read the entry submitted by Fraser Nelson:

From schools to elections, from the air we breathe to the businesses we grow, from laws that pass and  the voices that are overlooked in the process, no community can understand itself and no democracy  can function properly without a shared understanding of what’s true and what isn’t. Local voices,  stories and facts can and do change the way we live and work in Utah. 

For nearly 150 years, The Salt Lake Tribune has served our state as Utah’s independent voice. We don’t  have to tell you that local journalism is changing rapidly, or that communities across  the nation are losing their newspapers, tearing a hole in their civic and democratic fabric. We are taking  proactive, innovative and swift action to pioneer a new business model so that this does not happen in  Utah. By doing so, we hope to serve as an example for local news organizations across the country. 

  • We are the first metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States to transition to a 501(c)(3)  nonprofit organization.
  • We are transforming The Salt Lake Tribune to a community institution owned and operated by,  and working for, the people of Utah.
  • We have also created The Utah Journalism Foundation, an endowment fund that will ensure the  long-term future of The Tribune and provide support to innovative, high quality  community-based journalism, including new voices. 

The Tribune is the state’s newspaper of record. It captures our history and helps chart its future. And  now, the future of The Tribune itself is changing. 

The Future: The Nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune

Continued pressures on the traditional business model of local newspapers provide an opportunity for  the leadership of The Tribune, led by owner and publisher Paul C. Huntsman, to take matters into its  own hands and create a new, sustainable course. 

First, we embraced the fact that The Tribune is a civic rather than commercial enterprise. As an  institution the community relies on, we believe that a nonprofit Tribune could, in turn, rely on the  community for financial support, including philanthropic grants and individual donations in addition the  traditional subscriptions and ad revenue. 

In April of 2019, we started on this new path forward by filing applications with the Internal Revenue  Service to create two new organizations: the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Journalism  Foundation. We were awarded nonprofit status by the IRS in late October of 2019, months earlier than  anticipated.  

Our Innovative Nonprofit Model 

The Tribune is not a start-up. It is an established news organization with ​60​ employees, producing both  a print and a digital product every day. For this reason, our approach to the IRS was deliberately  designed to ensure that we could continue operations as they are now, without having to change or  reduce any current form of revenue, most importantly our paywall. There was a risk that donation  amounts would take too long to reach sufficient levels to replace the subscriber and advertising revenue  that had previously sustained the paper. The IRS had no argument with this approach. The approval we  received allows us to continue receiving revenue from advertising and subscriptions while also  accepting charitable donations.  

This innovative shift allows The Tribune to continue doing what the community needs it to do and gain  access to a new source of revenue — philanthropy. The Tribune continues to have a hard paywall on its  digital product and sells print subscriptions and advertising. Our reporters still cover a full range of  issues and events, including sports and entertainment alongside our hard hitting local journalism. The  only significant change to our editorial work is that the paper no longer endorses candidates. By  retaining our ability to gain revenue through traditional means and adding the ability to receive  philanthropic donations, we ensured that other newspapers considering a nonprofit model are not  forced to follow a precedent of having to change their revenue model in order to receive IRS approval of  their nonprofit status.  

As a nonprofit, mission-driven organization, however, changes to the way we do business have been  significant. We are now managed by a Board of Directors representative of the diversity of the state we  serve. The traditional role of publisher is gone, though the president of the Board will serve on the  editorial board. We have put in place new accounting practices and requirements. We are building out a  nonprofit business development staff. We are experimenting with different models for a hybrid  “donor/subscriber” membership program.  

Newsroom culture has remained strong as our reporters have always felt accountable to the public.  Their primary concerns are a) that we have a significant and growing donor base, and b) that those  donors hold no sway, real or imagined, over their work. We have developed gift acceptance policies to  procedures to clarify to donors and to the public that donations of any size will not give the donating  individual or organization special influence on or access to our newsroom and the content it produces.  We are adding “educational” content to our website about the role of journalism in our democracy, and  we are devising ways to increase the effectiveness and impact of our community engagement efforts.  We have also benefited from grants that we would not otherwise have been eligible to receive, and have  used these resources to improve our digital products to make our reporting more interactive and  impactful. We understand that people will not donate to something they do not find brings value to their  life and their community. We are working every day to ensure that we fulfill our mission and exceed our  readers’ expectations. 

In just two short months as a nonprofit organization, we have already launched our first fundraising  campaign and raised nearly $200,000 from our readers. Clearly that isn't enough to keep an  organization of our size afloat — but it is an indication of the value our readers place in us, and their  confidence and and commitment to this new model.  

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