The Salt Lake Tribune faces layoffs, cuts to print offerings

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paul Huntsman, owner of The Salt Lake Tribune, addresses staff members, Tuesday May 8, 2018.

The owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune has ordered staff cuts and a review of shrinking its print edition in light of continued losses in circulation and advertising revenues.

Paul Huntsman, who acquired Utah’s largest newspaper in 2016, relayed those impending changes and financial difficulties in a 50-minute newsroom meeting with staff Tuesday, saying specifics on layoffs, reducing print pages and other content changes would be forthcoming within a week.

A son of the late industrialist-philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., the publisher said that in the two years since he acquired The Tribune from New York-based Digital First Media, the Salt Lake City-based paper had suffered a 40 percent decline in ad revenues while weekday print circulation continues to plummet, down from 85,000 four years ago to fewer than 31,000 today.

Huntsman said he had personally covered the resulting red ink over the past eight months, but added that the conditions were “not sustainable.”

Investments totaling more than a million dollars in a new web production system and upgrading The Tribune’s digital offerings, mobile apps and social media presence have not stemmed those losses, he said.

Huntsman said he had chosen to address the staff directly on the difficulties — against the advice of attorneys — in the interests of being “honest, open and transparent.”

“We’ve got to address the realities of where print is going,” Huntsman told the more than 60 staffers assembled in the newsroom, noting that key decisions loomed with the approaching end in 2020 of a long-standing joint-operating agreement with The Tribune’s news rival, the Mormon church-owned Deseret News.

Huntsman said in an interview that he expected The Tribune’s business model to evolve further after 2020, possibly as a not-for-profit operation. But, he said, “I would love to keep putting out a print edition.“

The Tribune newsroom currently employs 90 reporters, editors, photographers and support staff. No numbers were shared Tuesday on how many of those employees would lose their jobs.

He told Tribune staffers he had tasked Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce and other top managers with determining the extent of staff cuts and potential consolidation of print offerings, in a process he described as “right-sizing.”

“No one anticipated such a steep decline so quickly and employee cutbacks come only as a last resort,” Napier-Pearce wrote in an email to staff after Huntsman’s announcement. She said managers “continue to crunch numbers” and expect to unveil a restructuring plan in the next week. Those leaving, she said, will get back vacation pay and the option of severance.

“Thankfully,” Napier-Pearce wrote, “Paul remains committed to ensuring The Tribune maintains the quality of its content, and we will never sacrifice what’s made us the most well-read and respected newspaper in the Intermountain West.”

Huntsman said the quality of The Tribune’s offerings and its ability to serve its readers would guide staff reductions and other changes.

“Content,” he said, “is king.“

The Tribune will also consider relocating from its current offices at The Gateway mall on the western edge of downtown Salt Lake City.

Describing The Tribune as “a community asset,” Huntsman said he was optimistic despite the tough financial outlook, noting that recent breakthroughs in ongoing negotiations with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the Tribune-Deseret News partnership on print, advertising and circulation had greatly improved The Tribune’s chances for long-term survival.

“They really want us to survive,” Huntsman said of LDS officials involved in the negotiations. “I’m very appreciative of their recognition.”

Though he characterized those talks with church officials as “still fluid,” Huntsman said he “can see a pathway forward for the first time, frankly, since I bought the paper ... I’m as confident now going forward as I’ve ever been.”

Tuesday’s developments come about three months after The Tribune put its online offerings behind a pay wall. Paid online subscriptions have generally exceeded managers’ expectations, Huntsman said, but have not thus far covered ongoing financial losses.

Huntsman said he was also seeking to aggressively expand nonnewspaper-related businesses associated with The Tribune, including its digital marketing arm, in hopes of building new revenue streams to cover costs.