How The Salt Lake Tribune drives home the need to support local news

What do you do when subscriptions and advertising are not enough to sustain your newsroom? After obtaining nonprofit status, The Salt Lake Tribune can now be supported with tax-deductible donations, while an affiliated nonprofit foundation aims to support journalistic projects across the state.

by Simone Flueckiger | March 11, 2020

Photo Credit: Cool Hand Luke

As the first US legacy news organisation transitioning to nonprofit status, The Salt Lake Tribune can now receive tax-deductible donations from its community, opening up another way to generate revenue in addition to advertising and subscriptions. It is also creating the Utah Journalism Foundation, a standalone nonprofit with the aim of supporting The Tribune as well as independent news projects across the state.

“We think because both of those pieces, we’re giving people a whole range of ways to support local news,” said The Tribune’s editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce, who will be speaking at the World News Media Congress in Zaragoza, Spain.

“Our challenge is to send the message that local news needs your help through any means necessary, through advertising, through subscriptions, through membership, through large or ongoing donations. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to support the cause.”

WAN-IFRA: What are the main priorities this year for The Tribune?

Jennifer Napier-Pearce: Part of it is messaging – it’s making sure that people understand that their support, whether that’s a subscription, membership or donation, results in good journalism, and that good journalism gives back to the community by empowering citizens.

The second, of course, is fundraising. We want to raise 20 million dollars by the end of the year. Once we reach that mark, we will start to distribute some of those funds not just to The Tribune but to other smaller independent news projects throughout the state. So that’s an important milestone for us, to tell the community that it’s not just about The Tribune, it’s really about local news generally.

The third big lift is really figuring out the connection between membership, subscription, and what that sort of user journey looks like. We want to make sure that we’re as clear in our messaging as possible and are building out that system.

We haven’t had a nonprofit status for very long, so we’re still trying to figure out exactly what that picture will look like. The nonprofit operation requires additional pieces that we’ve never had before, so there’s some legwork and logistics that need to happen. We’re right in that busy period.

Did you think your unique local history makes it easier to ask for donations?

We’ve been around since 1871, so we’ve been a part of the fabric of this community for a very long time. On the other hand, the state of Utah is growing exponentially, so we are seeing this huge influx of people who don’t have us as a traditional marker.

They haven’t really thought about us, our place and our unique role in this community. We need to introduce ourselves to those newcomers, and let them know that the brand of journalism that we do in this state really is unique.

The Tribune is one of two dailies in the state of Utah. But the other daily is owned by the Mormon Church, which holds a lot of power in the state.

We have a unique role to play in making sure that there is a sort of watchdog accountability journalism here. We just have to explain to people who are new to the area that The Tribune has a unique role in our community that is really essential to the way that we navigate big questions.

Do you now also need to be more transparent about your journalism process?

My reporters are starting to integrate more information, such as how they got the story or which sources they checked.

I think that kind of explanatory journalism is really important and lets readers know that this is a news source that they can trust, that we really vetted information and sources. We take the public’s trust very seriously. Additionally, as a nonprofit, we’re expanding our efforts to talk to teachers and to students about the important role that newspapers and the press play in democracy.

Did you explore any other alternatives to boost funding before deciding on trying to achieve nonprofit status?

We looked at keeping the newspaper for profit but creating a nonprofit foundation. That is a trend that is kind of working for some newspapers in the United States, namely the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Tampa Bay Times. They have a nonprofit foundation that is helping to support their newsrooms.

But it’s still a barrier to have a for-profit newspaper, which is why we decided to do both. We are transitioning our newspaper itself into a nonprofit so we can take advantage of the smaller donations, and really have more of a community fabric feel to it. With the Utah Journalism Foundation, we are supporting not just The Tribune but independent news projects throughout the state of Utah. The Tribune is, of course, not the only newspaper that’s suffering. There are a lot of smaller communities throughout the state where newspapers either closed down or just aren’t able to produce essential journalism.

Is there anything that the nonprofit status is stopping you from doing?

No – the only minor piece on the content side is that the newspaper as an institution can no longer endorse political candidates. We’re still continuing to report on arts and culture, on sports, on politics, doing everything that we have done before. The IRS deemed that this what a newspaper does and that it is charitable in nature.

Having that stamp of approval is really helpful when we try and tell the public that we’ve been a mission-driven organisation since 1871, and that the mission to provide the best news and analysis to our community has not changed. It’s just that now they can support us in a more robust way.

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