Paul Huntsman: It’s time to step away

Huntsman purchased The Tribune in 2016 and converted to a nonprofit in 2019.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paul Huntsman purchased The Tribune from Alden Global Capital and later turned it into a nonproft.

Eight years ago, I finalized negotiations with five parties to purchase The Salt Lake Tribune from New York-based Alden Global Capital and returned its ownership to local hands. Buying The Tribune took more than two years, including arrangements with Deseret Management Corp., owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and with officials from the Department of Justice’s antitrust division.

At the time, I knew little of the newspaper industry but believed we needed to protect and sustain this critical institution. That feeling has never wavered.

Upon acquiring The Tribune, I made a commitment to find a sustainable pathway while protecting the independence of its journalism. What I found was an institution exhausted by layoffs, uncertainty and owner neglect but still grasping tightly to a commitment to serve the community.

Within 18 months of buying The Tribune, national advertisers accelerated their movement away from print. The move hemorrhaged an ailing industry nationally and locally. Even before that, Salt Lake City could barely support two daily newspapers.

Failure, however, was not an option.

The Tribune and the Deseret News have always been competitors, alternative voices, and, in many ways, represented separate demographics. Yet, as one of the last remaining joint operating agreements in the nation under the Newspaper Preservation Act, which allowed both newspapers to publish daily newspapers, we knew our near-term success was predicated on the other surviving. While both newsrooms remained fiercely independent of one another, the Newspaper Preservation Act permitted us to work together on production, delivery and advertising efforts.

I have not formally acknowledged how amenable and constructive the Deseret News was as a partner alongside The Tribune. I want to publicly thank Jeff Simpson (now head of Deseret Management Corp.), who fought hard to ensure both newspapers found a soft landing when the joint operating agreement expired Dec. 31, 2020.

With great financial uncertainty approaching in 2021, I needed to find a pathway that would provide sustainability for the foreseeable future. While avenues of revenue were running dry, Utahns’ desire to support healthy independent journalism remained incredibly strong.

In 2019, I began floating the idea of converting The Tribune to a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization with the intention of adding another revenue leg to the traditional stool — philanthropy. I discussed the idea with experts from leading journalism foundations, nonprofit news organizations, academic institutions, and, most importantly, philanthropic leaders in Utah. Without their support, this plan could not succeed.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I immediately hired the best law firm in Washington, D.C., to start this unprecedented conversion from a legacy newspaper to a public donation-supported nonprofit. We became the first legacy daily newspaper in the nation to receive this status. The industry is closely observing our experiment.

As part of that transition, we hired new leadership, including a business team to direct print, digital, agency-related revenue and philanthropy. The results exceeded my financial expectations, and the transition put The Tribune on a pathway to sustainability.

Since 2021, The Tribune has posted a surplus of cash (which goes into the next year’s operating budget), and each year has increased over the previous year. We also gave out raises, hired additional staff, enacted a parental leave benefit, and added a match to 401(k) accounts.

As chair of The Salt Lake Tribune board of directors, I also head the paper’s six-person editorial board, which selects topics and positions for the Sunday editorials. The editorial page is the soul of any newspaper.

This has taken a toll on me. I have never taken a penny of compensation, nor expected to receive any, from The Tribune. This effort has taken me away from many other professional responsibilities related to managing the growing investments at our family office.

I have learned a lot about newspapers, journalism, newsrooms, and Utah’s public and private institutions. Utah is a state we all love, but it too often unwittingly finds itself in national and international headlines for the wrong reasons. Much still goes unreported. We need more smart, capable, apolitical journalists.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paul Huntsman addresses Tribune staff in 2018.

While this new model of journalism has repaired The Tribune’s balance sheet, it does not guarantee long-term success. Relevance, genuine independence, accountability and innovation are critical for the community to put its full trust and value behind this institution.

Thus, after eight years, it is time for me to step away from The Tribune board and operations. I do not regret this journey. It was an exhausting, thrilling, exasperating, rocky and sometimes fulfilling ride. The chance of a lifetime. But among the most important things in life are knowing oneself and one’s place in life’s cycles.

This year will be another strong year for The Tribune as it remains the responsibility of the remaining nine board members, all of whom care deeply about its mission and success. I want to thank them for their unyielding service.

My dedication to our state, faith in our institutions, demand for transparency and the democratic process persists. The press’s freedom stands as democracy’s cornerstone. The experience has whetted my appetite for watchdog journalism. That love affair remains strong, and I will reengage.

Paul Huntsman has been chair of The Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.