Praise the Persevering Press and Pass the Gravy

As we approach Thanksgiving, we’re grateful for one of our most important American traditions: a free press. Most of all, we’re grateful for those who refuse to give up on that ideal in the face of all odds.

Early last year, we commented on the challenges facing community newspapers. We noted that while all types of traditional media face challenges from free online news sources, some of the most dramatic effects have been on local newspapers.

Some papers – like the Youngstown Vindicator just this year – have closed their doors after a century or more of service. Some have gone to digital only, while others have stopped daily publication and now publish weekly. Communities all over the country face becoming news deserts, where there is no hometown media source to report on cops, schools, city hall or the high school football team.

One newspaper is taking a new approach. On November 1, the 148-year-old Salt Lake Tribune received word that the IRS had approved its application to become a nonprofit – the first legacy paper in the United States to do so.

Owner Paul Huntsman could have sold the Tribune to one of the big newspaper conglomerates and wiped his hands of the headaches that go with running a modern newspaper. But Huntsman, in a column published November 4, explained that he had another motivation. Here’s an abridged version of what he said:

“When I bought the Salt Lake Tribune in 2016, I wanted to return the venerable newspaper to local ownership. While the industry is attracting record numbers of readers when websites are included, revenues and migration away from print media continues to make it difficult to survive. I will not be held hostage to a broken system.”

Huntsman now goes to work building an endowment substantial enough to sustain the Tribune. We’re optimistic he will succeed, because the nonprofit news model already is working in the United States.

According to the Institute for Nonprofit News, nonprofit newsrooms have been launching at a rate of more than one a month for almost 12 years. These are not newspapers per se, but organizations that try to fill the gaps left by struggling legacy media. Notably, individual donations are beginning to grow faster than foundation funding.

Some have called for government to do more to preserve a free press. Since colonial times, government has supported the commercial press through tax breaks, favorable postal rates and other means. But government bailouts aren’t the answer to the challenges local media face today. We think there are better solutions.

While the trend toward large news organizations buying up local outlets represents a move away from local ownership, investments in local news gathering continue in many of the affected communities. And we see promise in the nonprofit model, in which organizations raise their own funds while remaining independent of government influence.

No one really knows how far or how successful the nonprofit model will be over the long haul, or what the landscape will look like years from now under consolidation. In the meantime, it’s important that those of us who value a free press continue to support local journalism through our subscriptions, viewership and advertising dollars. If and when new models for local journalism emerge, we need to support those too.