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The Salt Lake Tribune facing 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 daily and weekend print circulation continues to plummet, down from 85,000 four years ago to fewer than 31,000 today.

Huntsman said he had personally covered resulting financial losses over the past eight months, but added that the situation was “not sustainable.”

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

He said he had chosen to address the staff directly — 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.

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 said in an email to staff after Huntsman’s announcement. She said managers “continue to crunch numbers” and expect to announce a restructuring plan in the next week. Those leaving, she said, will get back vacation pay and the option of severance.

“Thankfully,” Napier-Pearce said in the email, “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 local readers would guide staff reductions and other changes.

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

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.

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.”

Tuesday’s announcement comes about three months after The Tribune put its online offerings behind a paywall. 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 non-newspaper-related businesses associated with The Tribune, including its digital marketing arm, in hopes of covering costs.

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