Struggling newspapers across the country are asking: How long can we stay in business? With profitable days disappearing in the rearview mirror, should we secure our financial prospects by formally converting to nonprofit status?
That’s what The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah did. Owner and publisher Paul Huntsman believes other papers will pursue the same not-for-profit path.
In late 2019, the Salt Lake Tribune became the first major metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States to be granted 501(c)(3) status by the IRS, allowing supporters to make tax deductible donations to the paper to help keep it afloat. Huntsman will give up his role as sole owner and publisher and serve as chairman of the board when the nonprofit transition is complete.
He said “a couple dozen publishers” and law firms representing newspaper owners “have already reached out” to learn more about the Tribune’s process.
They’re “asking really what the playbook looks like, as they are looking to go down a very similar pathway with their own newspapers,” Huntsman said.
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Like countless other papers, the Salt Lake Tribune was struggling to stay in business as reader attention and advertiser revenue shifted to the internet. Huntsman said he “realized this was a charitable endeavor” when he acquired the paper in 2016. The paper is important for the community, so “it was a matter of finding a sustainable pathway.”
Huntsman said he expected the IRS review process to stretch into 2020, but the approval was swift. In November, when the conversion took place, the paper started to accept tax deductible donations.
The Tribune said it would “seek donations large and small, coupling them with revenue from advertising and subscriptions and a separate foundation.”
NiemanLab’s Christine Schmidt published the paper’s 59-page IRS application and response with the headline “Attention, local newspaper owners: This is now a proven, IRS-approved path to convert your money-losing daily into a community nonprofit.”
In an interview for the “Reliable Sources” podcast, Huntsman said other papers will find it necessary to do the same thing.
“I really don’t see how you can look at any other pathway and still have good watchdog and impactful journalism,” especially those outlets serving “communities of our size,” he said.
At least one smaller paper has taken the same leap in recent months. Montclair Local in Montclair, New Jersey, received IRS approval and reintroduced itself as a nonprofit charity. “Your support can make us stronger,” the website’s homepage now says, urging people to become members.
These print newspapers are joining a raft of nonprofit digital-only news outlets that rely on memberships and other forms of subscription revenue. There are also a couple of prominent papers, the Tampa Bay Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, that are for-profit, but are owned by nonprofit foundations.
Challenges persist for print papers, whether they are trying to turn a profit or not.
Huntsman said “most major newsrooms need to prepare for the inevitability of a digital newsroom,” meaning an end to print editions.
Regarding the Tribune’s potential move away from print, Huntsman said the paper is in the “very early stages” of discussions and expects to have an answer within the next few years.