During his time at Wharton, Paul Huntsman WG00 never would have guessed his future would involve rescuing local journalism. Yet, as community and regional newspapers across the country struggle to retain subscribers and advertising revenue, Huntsman finds himself at the center of that struggle as owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.
A proud Utah resident, Huntsman bought the 148-year-old Tribune three years ago with the goal of saving one of the state’s most influential daily newspapers. Now, he is trying to put the paper on more sustainable financial footing through a bold plan that, if successful, could be a blueprint for similar publications across the country.
Huntsman, a father of eight and son of the late industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr. W59 HON96 (after whom Wharton’s Huntsman Hall is named), spoke with Wharton Magazine about his efforts to turn the newspaper into a nonprofit organization—a shift that would cement the Tribune as the first legacy paper in the U.S. to make such a transition.
Wharton Magazine: Your purchase of The Salt Lake Tribune seems to be more than just an investment for you. What led you to buy the paper?
Paul Huntsman: The Salt Lake Tribune has been the paper of record in the state of Utah for almost the last 150 years. I bought the paper for the betterment of the community. The Tribune was previously owned by a New York hedge fund that also owned a larger conglomerate of daily and weekly newspapers. The Tribune was just a small piece of a much larger investment for that hedge fund, and it had little interest in local journalism. I just couldn’t accept the fact that the Tribune would not be able to address all the issues we are facing in Utah. We had to bring the Tribune back into local ownership in order to figure out a pathway to sustainability.
Utah has one of the most dynamic job markets anywhere in the country. It is likely that the Olympics will be coming again in the next 10 to 20 years. We’ve also got one of the youngest populations in the nation and are forecasted to double our population along the Wasatch urban corridor in the next 30 years. I just don’t see how we can manage these issues without high-quality local journalism. We also have the most beautiful lands in our national parks and monuments, and an abundance of outdoor recreation. However, we have a scarcity of water resources and challenges with our air quality. Many of these issues are not only pertinent to Utah, but also nationally as we debate and find solutions to managing our nation’s beautiful land and national parks and monuments—Zion, Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, to name a few. These areas get visitors from all over the world, and there’s a growing debate about how these lands should be managed. As a newspaper, we are right in the middle of this debate, describing these stories and providing the community the important and relevant issues that relate to them. So it’s very critical as we move forward as a state that we have a strong, independent watchdog journalism organization.
WM: We’re seeing major cost-cutting at newspapers across the U.S. Can you talk about why this is happening?
PH: Most larger metropolitan newspapers are still owned by larger conglomerates, and in order for them to meet an acceptable rate of return for their shareholders, they will need to maintain some type of margins. Too often, margin sustainability comes at the expense of quality journalism for the communities they serve. We are seeing that across the nation.
Mid- and smaller-market local newspapers like ours have also been going through a massive transformation, and that’s primarily driven by consumers no longer accessing and reading their news through printed products. More people get their news on their phone, for example. As the saying goes, “You’re trading print dollars for digital dimes”—and I would add mobile pennies. Whereas you used to get a dollar for advertising in print, you’re getting pennies on the dollar for advertising and subscription revenue on digital platforms. The business model is fundamentally broken.
WM: To offset that trend, you’ve filed to turn the Tribune into a nonprofit. If accepted, what would that mean for the paper and other local and regional publications?
PH: Now that ad and subscription revenues are just a fraction of what is needed to operate a quality news organization, I look to philanthropy as being the third leg of the stool. Nonprofits have a mission to serve the community, and I look at journalism as providing a much-needed service to the public. We have to preserve this critical institution. We submitted an application to the Internal Revenue Service early last spring and, as part of that application, we are proposing to transition the Tribune into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. This new business model will build upon our track record of community-focused journalism and, as a nonprofit, we’ll be in essence owned by the community. And that means, like a lot of nonprofits, we will look to the community for long-term support to sustain journalism here in our great state.
We were very careful in that we didn’t want our application or what we’re proposing to change in any way how newspapers need to run or operate. This is something we feel works for us and can easily be replicated in other markets. We’ve had a lot of independent and family-owned newspapers that have reached out to us. They’re very anxious to see what the IRS says. So we really see a lot of what we’re doing as something that we can easily share with others and build in their own communities. So far, we’re extremely encouraged with the feedback that we’ve received here in Utah and across the country.
WM: What advice would you give to other Wharton grads who are looking to support their own communities with investment?
PH: There is no better example than my father, Jon Huntsman. His accolades and reputation as a business leader, and investor are among the best in terms of what he was able to build over his lifetime. But his legacy, and what people will remember him for, is not all the deals that he did, and all the money he accumulated by being a very astute investor. His reputation was built around his desire to give back to local communities and leave the world a better place. He gave away his proceeds almost faster than he made them. In fact, at one point during the downturn in the economy, he went to a large bank and borrowed tens of millions of dollars in order to meet a philanthropic commitment, because to him that was his purpose in life—to leave it better than how he found it. Businesses were just a means to the end of making the world a better place.
WM: You personally invested in the Tribune, but elsewhere you’re making investments as president and CEO of your family’s firm, Huntsman Family Investments. Can you talk about the type of deals you’re looking at for the firm?
PH: A few years before my father passed, he established the family office, and I was fortunate to work with him and help build it out. We have a long-term legacy in the chemicals industry, and our family resources have all been built up with Huntsman Corporation, the company my father established. As we transition to the next generation and the generation just below me, we’ll look to diversify our holdings and our assets over time. Obviously, our heritage has been manufacturing and, more specifically, chemicals and plastics and packaging, so we know those markets. But we also understand that there’s certain fundamental aspects to investing in different businesses, so we’re looking not only at industrials but other areas as well. We recently acquired a telecommunications business [GTA TeleGuam], and are looking at a few businesses related to the “new economy.”
WM: Is there anything you want to end with?
PH: I didn’t realize that three years ago, I would be at the forefront of trying to help solve the challenges related to the newspaper industry, but I’m happy the Tribune is in a position where we can provide other communities with a pathway of sustainability. I never thought that five years ago I’d be involved in journalism as heavily as I am today, but we just have to solve this. We have a long way to go, but the pathway looks achievable.
Editor’s Note: The Salt Lake Tribune‘s plan to convert into a nonprofit was approved by the IRS in a letter dated Oct. 29, a week after this article’s publication. The paper is now considered a public charity.