- Derek Carlisle
Staff photos courtesy of The Salt Lake Tribune
Things were going along just fine—and then Bryan Schott showed up for work.
While his hiring in late August 2020 at The Salt Lake Tribune was unusual, it was less cataclysmic than it was unsettling for a newsroom already on the edge. The Tribune's highly acclaimed executive editor, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, had resigned earlier in August amid rumors of management discord and fears of yet another change. Change, in fact, had become the Tribune's M.O. since 1997, when its founding family ventured into a $700 million stock deal with former cable giant TCI and began the water-boarding exercise that would result in digital surrender.
At the end of 2020, the Tribune, and subsequently the Deseret News, will scrap their daily print editions in what the D-News calls "the next exciting phase of journalism." The two Utah dailies confirmed an end of their joint operating agreement, part of the 1970 Newspaper Preservation Act which arguably sent many papers into a death spiral and just delayed the inevitable in Utah.
Whether the inevitable is exciting or devastating depends on readers and their ever-changing habits.
- Bryan Schott, Tribune Political Correspondent
Comings and Goings
Schott was the managing editor of Utah Policy, a news aggregator that grew into an independent source of local political news over the years. When he was hired by the
Tribune, his role in the newsroom was unclear, although he was expected to launch a separate product that operates semi-independently from the paper's regular coverage.
With Napier-Pearce gone and an interim editor at the helm, it appeared that Schott was hired by the new nonprofit board of directors. He has indeed started a podcast, but also has written print stories, notably chasing news of congressional candidate, now Representative-elect Burgess Owens.
Meanwhile, he tweeted his displeasure at Utah Policy. "Fun fact. Before I left to go to the Tribune, I was asked to 'stop beating up' on 'poor Burgess Owens' because the NRCC was complaining that I was being mean to him. I ignored that request, but it's still shocking that it was made."
Schott left Utah Policy just as the Deseret News bought it. That could not have been good news for Schott's cohort at Utah Policy, longtime political reporter Bob Bernick, who himself was a former D-News employee who had been unceremoniously demoted in May 2010 before he left the paper. Bernick's byline has not been seen at Utah Policy since Schott left. When asked what his future plans are, Bernick said, "I really don't have anything to say at this time, things are kind of up in the air."
Schott calls the years he worked with Bernick as "some of the most fun I've had as a journalist."
Publisher LaVarr Webb says he sold Utah Policy because at 70, he wants to slow down. "Utah Policy has never been a money maker. I basically subsidized it myself. It kept me visible in the community while I did some consulting work for clients." Schott thinks the D-News plans to bury it, but Webb says his plan is to revert to the news aggregator it once was.
Money, of course, is what the news is all about these days. That the
Tribune was bleeding big bucks helped push it into the nonprofit world in late 2019. To be the first nonprofit metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States was seen as historic.
- Jennifer Napier-PearceOutgoing Tribune editor and now staffer for Govenor-elect Spencer Cox
The paper argued to the IRS that it was already doing the work of a nonprofit in support of the community. When it was granted status, it became clear that it would need to cut ties with the D-News, Napier-Pearce told the Nieman Journalism Lab. To any keen observer, that meant ending the JOA.
When Napier-Pearce was named editor in August 2016, it jolted the newsroom. She had been in public radio and joined the Tribune in 2013 as a reporter, only to leave for a more lucrative position at the U of U's Hinckley Institute of Politics. She spent only a few months there before being lured back by Paul Huntsman, heir to the billion-dollar Hunstman franchise who had come to own the Tribune. Paul's father, philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., wanted the Tribune to survive and had expressed interest in buying both the Tribune and the Deseret News at different times. Two years before his death from cancer, he shepherded Paul into the business and was named chairman emeritus.
Paul Huntsman hadn't exactly purchased the paper at its height. In 2014, according to The New York Times, circulation had dropped from 61,000 to 32,000 and ad revenue plunged 40 percent in his first two years. Then came the layoffs—34 from the newsroom in 2018—two years after the Huntsman acquisition and only one year after the paper had won its coveted Pulitzer Prize. "The Salt Lake story is a sober reminder that deep pockets and community-spirited good intentions may not be enough," the Poynter Institute said at the time.
"There was apprehension about Jennifer [Napier-Pearce] coming from a broadcast background to run the newspaper," one insider said. "People were absolutely sorry to see Terry [Orme] go, but I would certainly say [Napier-Pearce] did a remarkable job given very difficult circumstances. She convinced the staff that she was the person for the job."
Still, there was acrimony. "We never warmed to her," said one former staffer. "It was not just the people who were laid off, but the reporting staff—the Pulitzer Prize winners—that voluntarily left."
Napier-Pearce seemed to be in panic mode and reflected that to the staff. "It felt like we were just afraid of dying every day," the former staffer said.
"I could see the ship sinking," said another reporter who left at that time.
- Paul HuntsmanChair of The Salt Lake Tribune Inc. Board of Directors and president of Huntsman Family Investments
The last six months before Napier-Pearce resigned were described as hell. "There was relentless hammering her about coverage of [Huntsman's] brother's campaign," the insider said of Jon Huntsman Jr.'s run for governor.
Paul Huntsman disputes the "relentless hammering," and challenges the public to look at any of the election coverage for hints of bias regarding his brother. If anything, readers did tire of the obligatory disclaimer at the end of each story. Paul Huntsman did, however, want his reporters to follow the money and hold Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox accountable for COVID expenditures.
When Napier-Pearce was asked for her take on her departure, she referred City Weekly to her official statement on the Tribune website [https://bit.ly/34V28lg], saying, "The path we forged for the Tribune is not a one-size-fits-all panacea for what's going on with print journalism. There is a viable path forward for newsrooms—particularly for single owners in a community with the capacity for philanthropy." That, she said, is the board of directors' job. "They're figuring it out."
It raised a few eyebrows, then, when Napier-Pearce accepted a position on Governor-elect Spencer Cox's transition team as senior adviser/communications director. The question had to be asked: Could a possible job offer from Cox have influenced the paper's coverage during the gubernatorial primary race? In an e-mail response, Napier-Pearce was clear that the offer came later. "The political desk's coverage of the governor's race was certainly one point of friction, but it was by no means the only difference of opinion I had with the Tribune board chair," she said. "My job as executive editor was to protect the newsroom and allow them to do their job without interference, and I did that to the best of my ability. ... To the extent you are asking if my departure from the Tribune had anything to do with my current position with the Cox administration, neither the governor-elect nor his campaign contacted me until well after I left the Tribune."
Huntsman promised to announce a new executive editor, and it turned out to be 40-year-old Massachusetts native Lauren Gustus, previously editor of The Sacramento Bee and Western region editor for The McClatchy Co., where she oversaw 250 journalists in 10 newsrooms. She reports for work in early December.
How to Pay for Daily News?
Nothing can be clear sailing for The Salt Lake Tribune. It had hired Fraser Nelson, a strategic consultant, as vice president of business innovation—a fancy way of saying she was to find donors and make money for the Tribune. Incorporation documents call her the registered agent for the new nonprofit corporation. She lasted a year and seven months.
Nelson says she left because she had planned to move to Arizona to work on a political campaign. She offered to stay through January just to wrap things up, but Huntsman decided against that offer. "It's a mystery to me why," she says.
Nelson had been heavily recruited and is believed to have raised a significant amount of money in a short time for the new nonprofit. Those figures will not be available until the next IRS filing. Small donations from readers and fans won't be enough, and the Tribune won't be able to depend on the Huntsman Foundation to keep it afloat. In fact, the IRS' public support test requires broad support, both in terms of individuals and other sources.
- Lauren GustusNewly hired executive editor at The Salt Lake Tribune
Filling the vacancy, the Tribune recently hired Chris Stegman as its chief revenue officer. While Nelson's role was primarily fundraising, Stegman's will be as a traditional publisher overseeing areas of revenue, while Huntsman himself will take over most development duties.
Huntsman's development experience is somewhat limited to his family's foundation whose mission focused on health issues—very different from that of a news organization's.
Perhaps the biggest unspoken issue is what the path forward looks like. Board members have not been forthcoming. "I don't think anyone knows what the role of the board is—including the board," the insider said.
Of course, there have been official statements and most recently stories in both the Tribune and the Deseret News. But there is an atmosphere of secrecy that cloaks the newsroom and the journalists who make the organization what it is. Reporters and staff are understandably reluctant to speak out during this delicate transition time, and the new board members defer to Huntsman. Meanwhile, news dribbles out to the public.
"There are a lot of journalists there who value their jobs," says Joel Campbell, associate teaching professor in journalism at Brigham Young University School of Communications. "The Salt Lake Tribune has long been a fighter for transparency in government. I guess I'm just asking the same from the Tribune."
How do nonprofits survive, especially in this uncertain time of politics and pandemic? Radio and TV nonprofits walk a different path with periodic campaigns for audience support.
KCPW 88.3 FM, a Salt Lake public radio station, sees a broad base of sponsors helping to safeguard autonomy. "With the public-media model—largely a nonprofit model—it makes us look for corporate sponsors and foundation grants and also rely on listener support." says general manager Lauren Colucci. "The beauty of that is when you spread out the power of ownership among so many people, it really preserves the independence of an organization. No person or organization has any financial stake."
KCPW expects board members to go on-air to help fundraise. "It's such a period of struggle or change with massive reductions in reporting staff," Colucci says. "Newspapers unfortunately were very slow at moving toward digital and capturing it. In public radio, podcasts and listening in general have seen such an amazing growth."
Growth has not been the case for newspapers. The coronavirus alone has closed more than 60 newspapers, the Poynter Institute reports. "Over the past 15 years, more than one in five papers in the United States has shuttered, and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been cut in half, according to research by the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism," The New York Times reports.
- David NoyceInterim editor at The Salt Lake Tribune
The Salt Lake Tribune, however, is not going away. But the digital change it's undertaking is anything but a sure-fire fix. And losing the daily print edition brings up emotions among the staff. "It's just such a sad day," says David Noyce, interim editor at The Salt Lake Tribune. "It's historic. We've delivered a daily paper for nearly 100 years."
Suing for Two Voices
Thomas Kearns and David Keith first bought the paper in 1901. "During the first forty years of its life, the Tribune was a crusading newspaper," wrote O.N. Malmquist in The First 100 Years—A History of The Salt Lake Tribune 1871-1971."It attacked its enemies and defended its friends with single-minded zeal and enthusiasm."
Kearns, a Roman Catholic, worked to transition the paper from its anti-Mormon bent. Over the years, it has acted as a counterbalance to the Mormon-owned Deseret News, inevitably fielding criticism for articles perceived as for or against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Readers would threaten to cancel their subscriptions, as if that mattered. In a way, it did. While subscriptions didn't support newspapers, the advertising that came with them did. And that is what chipped away at newspaper revenue.
It's also what made the "joint operating agreement" feasible. These agreements came about with the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 and allowed competing newspapers in the same market to share business operations. While the Tribune and the Deseret News had actually been sharing operations since 1952, negotiating these deals wasn't always even-handed, as Utah witnessed in 2013.
At that time, the Tribune was owned by a hedge fund, Alden Global Capital (owner of Digital First Media), which approached the Deseret News and emerged with a plan that made the Deseret News a majority partner, tilting profits to the News. This unprecedented move resulted in such staff alarm that a lawsuit became the only option. Former Tribune reporter and editor Joan O'Brien formed Citizens for Two Voices, a nonprofit joined by community supporters to fight the deal.
Why was the deal so bad? News Matters, a coordinated union campaign representing Digital First employees explains.
"The investment firms introduced a new way of thinking about the business management of newspapers and their journalistic mission, which often ran counter to the historic practices of traditional print newspaper companies. The standard operating formula often included aggressive cost-cutting, the adoption of advertiser-friendly policies, the sale or shuttering of under-performing newspapers, and financial restructuring, including bankruptcy."
This was not lost on the hapless Tribune staff. A University of North Carolina study showed how far the stakes were being driven into the heart of newspapers. Since 2004, 1,300 U.S. communities have completely lost news coverage and at least 900 communities have lost all news coverage, it wrote. And it found that Digital First had shut down or consolidated 21 papers in the four years before 2018.
How did the Tribune reach this point? In 1997, the Kearns-McCarthey family sold the paper to TCI. "The extended family got a reported $300 million in that deal, with more than a few long-time Tribune staffers (underpaid and overworked for decades) getting $1 million in then-Tribune Corp. stock in their pension funds," wrote political reporter Bob Bernick at the Utah Policy website in 2016.
In a ploy with tax avoidance implications, the family had an agreement to buy the paper back from TCI. But funny thing, two years later, TCI was sold to AT&T, which didn't want a newspaper. That started a fateful series of missteps: Dean Singleton bought the paper from AT&T and offered to sell it back to the Kearns-McCarthey family. That was a "no"—not enough money.
Singleton's newspaper chain was purchased by a hedge fund which, as we said before, was more about profits than news, and it began to get rid of the biggest cost burdens—newspaper employees.
Bernick wrote that the Tribune sale by members of the Kearns-McCarthey family ironically was "part of the reason for the Tribune's severe financial woes today." In fact, the deal depended on a shaky game of dominoes beginning a long descent that threatened to close the paper entirely. Back in 2014, Michael Kearns of the former Tribune dynasty told City Weekly it was like watching the Hindenberg crash over New Jersey.
Enter the LDS Church, which bought the Tribune's assets from the hedge fund and revised the JOA to a profit-sharing split of 70-to-30 percent in the Deseret News' favor. The future didn't just look bad—it looked like it was over.
That's when O'Brien and her valiantly quixotic group sued. The lawsuit would still be churning were it not for the Huntsman family riding in on their white horse. Part of the JOA agreement allowed the Deseret News to veto any potential buyers for the Trib. Perhaps because of Jon Sr.'s influence and certainly with his LDS affiliation, the deal was approved.
How then could the battered Tribune rise from the ashes? Things weren't exactly going well. As previously noted, the weekday circulation was down to around 32,000 (from 61,000 in 2014). Paul Huntsman did as the hedge-funders had done and, in 2018, slashed the employee count, cutting a third of its journalists.
- Terry OrmeLongtime Tribune staffer and editor who resigned in August 2016
Sadly, this came after the Tribune had won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the treatment of sexual assault victims at Brigham Young University. The investigation had been shepherded by Terry Orme, whom Huntsman replaced with Napier-Pearce.
"Terry leaving was awful," a former staffer said. "The shock of losing him was alarming," another said. While Orme was described as the quintessential supportive boss, he was undeniably tied to the withering model of print media.
His departure, whether forced or voluntary, was a harsh and perhaps inevitable move into the digital world. "I don't want to speculate about the reason," said Huntsman. "Terry Orme was a very fine journalist, and after 39 years, left quite abruptly."
Napier-Pearce would become the face of the nonprofit, approved just as the primary election season was ramping up. Huntsman's brother, Jon Huntsman Jr., was running for governor, coming into a race in which Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox already had a six-month lead. But Huntsman, a former governor, a diplomat and former presidential candidate, was both well-known and well-funded.
Insiders believe that trouble was brewing around the news coverage, and Napier-Pearce was feeling the heat. "She clashed consistently and relentlessly with Paul, and the last six months for her were absolute hell," the insider said. "Paul was relentless in hammering her about coverage of his brother's campaign."
Huntsman disputes that. "I would challenge anyone to look at any article and ask themselves if it was overly favorable or negative (to my brother)." He said he was, however, deeply concerned about Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox's role as the head of the Coronovirus Task Force.
"We went through a very unusual time with COVID, and it's still an ongoing situation," he said. "There are very important, critical questions that should and need to be asked.
"You have a governor wrapping up his term and confronted with a crisis we have not seen in our lifetime— the economy, schools and churches shut down, how this relates to science—and he turns it over to a subordinate and assigns $100 million to give away without medical, scientific or crisis management—and this individual is in the middle of a campaign." Of course, Huntsman is referring to Cox. He says he has asked the staff to pursue government records requests to find out what has happened to the money.
Even if his motives were legitimate, there was no escaping the appearance of conflict as the Tribune covered the gubernatorial race.
Jessica Taylor, who works as Senate and governors editor for the Cook Report, told the Deseret News that Jon Huntsman Jr. faced an uphill battle, especially among more conservative Republicans, for having left Utah to work for a Democratic president. She also said Huntsman had said he would not run for governor again, telling Politico in 2014 that he would be "fool-hearted" to try for a third term.
Napier-Pearce may have been caught in the middle as the Huntsman family encouraged a write-in campaign for Jon Jr.
But these were examples of the growing pains of moving into a nonprofit organization. With the board not yet fully aware of its own role, Huntsman was the default decision-maker.
Now, with both Napier-Pearce and Nelson gone, and with incoming editor Gustus not due to arrive until early December, that leaves the newsroom with only one woman in upper management—Sheila McCann. Noyce admits there is a need for more women and minorities on staff.
"Look at our staff page
—it's far too white," he said. "Utah can be a hard place to recruit from, but we really need to bolster that."
"In some respects, we've never had more readers—that's what's so ironic," he said. "The impact is because of the web and goes far beyond Salt Lake City and Utah."
With the current circulation down from a height in its heyday of 190,000 bouncing around between 25,000 and 35,000 daily, Huntsman hopes to convert most subscribers to the digital edition. It shouldn't be hard because some 80 percent of subscribers are digital now.
The Deseret News has a significant lead into the digital world since its former president and CEO Clark Gilbert joined the conglomerate in 2009 and pushed its online presence and promoting a national faith-based approach.
Of the 65 full-time employees left at the Tribune, only about nine work exclusively on the daily print product. Noyce thinks they could be reassigned to other areas. However, the 161 employees who operate the West Valley City plant's printing presses will lose their jobs.
The Tribune's digital replica is produced by Technavia, a third-party vendor. In a trend that's accelerating, more than four in five Tribune readers are now reading stories online or on mobile devices. The number of users? Four million.
"It's not insignificant and coming at a very difficult time," Noyce said. "It's kind of scary—and now we're going to have to sell our own ads."
A recent RadioWest broadcast on KUER with Noyce and executive VP Tim Fitzpatrick hinted at where the
Tribune might cut back—sports, arts and entertainment. That should worry some staffers. But Noyce says the "furniture" will remain. That means comics, obituaries, puzzles and games.
Print has long been a losing proposition, draining resources even as it covered important news. With staff cutbacks, the Tribune has benefitted from partnerships with emerging journalists at Report for America as well as with Eric Peterson's Utah Investigative Journalism Project.
The digital world will bring a new brand of journalism, based on clicks and views over subscriptions. Noyce says reporters will be getting an overall engagement score, which tracks more than a one-and-done click. But still, it's different for the reader, who has been used to seeing news organized and prioritized by editors.
The Tribune has had and will continue to have a digital replica for subscribers although most people land at the website through a specific search, Noyce says.
- George PyleTribune editorial page editor
"No doubt the pressures of being first and right are greater than ever," he says. Indeed, social media and so-called citizen journalists have diluted the news product and increased competition, making efforts to regain trust and credibility most important.
For the readers being left behind, the Tribune's transformation is nothing if not tragic. Letters to the editor have been pouring in, expressing angst, sorrow and nostalgia.
Editorial page editor George Pyle wasn't making light of it when he wrote: "It doesn't really matter that The Salt Lake Tribune has more than a few devoted readers who will very much miss the daily thud on the porch when, come Jan. 1, the daily print edition will no longer be produced. There just are not enough of them, and aren't going to be enough of them, to make it sustainable."
What it was; what it will be—this was the long and painful journey that The Salt Lake Tribune took. Death or redemption?
There's work to be done, both to re-imagine that morning news browsing ritual and to maintain the public's trust in the product.
"It's not a séance," Utah State University journalism professor Matt LaPlante told RadioWest.
But to its loyal readers, it was spiritual. Now, those years of good vibes need to materialize into profits.
Failure's Not an Option
Paul Huntsman remains optimistic about the Tribune's future.
He didn't want to do it. He didn't need that kind of stress. And yet, for his father and for the community, Paul Huntsman took the reins of a white stallion to save The Salt Lake Tribune.
"I was always a fan of public policy, politics and news and always followed the Tribune, but I never thought I'd ever find myself in this position," he says.
For Huntsman, with no formal background in journalism, it was an idealistic opportunity to bring ownership back locally. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It has been a very, very difficult four years trying to figure out a business model in an industry where you cannot accept failure."
Journalism had to be part of the democratic society, he said. "We had to figure it out.
"It has been very costly financially and emotionally. .... The easy thing would have been to walk away and quite frankly much better for my health."
Seeing that print had no long-term future, Huntsman says he began thinking through the transition to digital from the day he bought the paper. The question was whether the Tribune would print seven or five days or be a weekly only.
"I was not going to allow the Tribune to have the newsroom subsidize print when the vast majority of our readers are consuming it digitally." He did not want the Tribune to become another Kodak, doubling down on its products without realizing that the future was digital.
After working closely with the Deseret News to produce and distribute the newspapers, Huntsman says they were like "pilots of a plane on fire" with the task of getting it to safely land. "Alden (Global Capital) did not make decisions in the best interest of the long-term sustainability of the paper. We were not going to survive."
Metropolitan Salt Lake City is unusual in that it has maintained two daily newspapers, both of which are now going digital. One in five papers in the country have closed in the past 15 years, according to research by the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism.
The 2019 nonprofit status has allowed the Huntsmans to "unshackle ourselves from the costs and logistics associated with a very large costly organization."
The Trib's weekly printed product will most likely be a broadsheet, he says. "I would have preferred a news magazine, but it's more costly. We're still discussing whether it will be mailed or delivered."
Utah is one of the most digitally advanced states in the country, making it more likely that subscribers will make the move. "Look at my mother, my in-laws, and how adept they are. Even my father who didn't compose an email until the last few years of his life."
Huntsman Sr. depended on Bloomberg Terminal, a software platform for financial professionals who need real-time data, news and analytics. But when his fibromyalgia became too severe, he figured out how to send voice messages. "If my father can transition to that, anyone can," Paul said.
Still, up until the last few days of his life, Huntsman Sr. read the physical newspaper. "He never wanted to text or email," Paul noted. "He thought it was too impersonal."
Going forward, philanthropy will be the mainstay of the Tribune, and Huntsman will be the main mover. His mentor has been Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
"I asked him where he found the most success, and he pointed toward individuals vs. foundations—even though we'd like foundations to contribute."
Huntsman has not been completely comfortable in his publisher role and has had to deflect criticism of his style. "As I try to be fully honest and transparent—do I provide feedback after the fact? Absolutely.
"One time with [religion reporter] Peggy Stack, I knew she was doing an article, and I reached out to her. I was interested in the article and her take on it. She said, 'You're inserting commentary and opinion in journalism'—and it was a very good point.
"She is one of the most respected religion writers in the world.
"... We've got some of the best journalists. Pat Bagley (political cartoonist) needs to get a Pulitzer. He's an institution, and he has done more to influence our public policy that any individual."
Huntsman says he's more optimistic and excited about the future of the Tribune than ever before. "My focus has been trying to figure out the business model. ... I've never taking a penny from it and I've contributed a large sum to it."
No longer the reluctant publisher, Huntsman will be building the Tribune's financial future.
—By Katharine Biele