Kim Raff for The New York Times
SALT LAKE CITY — Life was tranquil for Paul Huntsman, a scion of a rich and powerful Utah family, before he got into the news business.
He spent his workdays managing much of the Huntsman family’s considerable portfolio at the Huntsman building on Huntsman Way. Sundays meant services at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chapel with his wife, Cheryl Wirthlin Huntsman, and their eight children. There were also skiing excursions to Deer Valley and hiking trips to Snowbird, and the parents were regulars at their children’s ballet performances, cheerleading banquets and lacrosse games.
Then Mr. Huntsman, a son of the billionaire industrialist Jon M. Huntsman Sr., bought The Salt Lake Tribune.
Since buying the struggling daily from its hedge-fund ownership group for an undisclosed sum in 2016, Mr. Huntsman has sometimes found himself at odds with family members and the local establishment his ancestors helped shape. He has also been challenged by the task of keeping the paper alive at a time when small newspapers are dying out and big dailies with national followings are growing more dominant.
The Tribune’s weekday circulation has dropped to 32,000 from roughly 61,000 in 2014. Ad revenue plunged 40 percent during Mr. Huntsman’s first two years at the helm, and he has been paying employees out of his own pocket.
Last year, he cut 34 of the newsroom’s 90 journalists. The press watchdog site Poynter, which had cheered his arrival, noted that “the Salt Lake story is a sober reminder that deep pockets and community-spirited good intentions may not be enough.”
In May, Mr. Huntsman announced a strategy that, in his view, would give the paper its best chance at survival: turning it into a nonprofit operation. If the plan gains federal approval, The Tribune would be the first metropolitan daily in the United States to go the nonprofit route. (Other newspapers, including The Tampa Bay Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, are owned by nonprofit corporations but are not themselves nonprofits.)
He started considering the idea a year ago, a few months after his father died. “I got word that some of our main advertisers were going to pull back on ad buys,” he said. “What I knew was going to be a loss was now going to be a monumental loss. Without having my father to address this with, to have him advise me and work through this, it was tough.”
Welcome to Journalism
A registered Republican, Mr. Huntsman has refused to go along with loyalists who have embraced or tacitly endorsed President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric.
“To undermine the press is, to me, no different than undermining our houses of worship,” he said during an interview in his father’s old office. “The Mormon Church is a huge and influential institution here, but if we were to accuse the leaders of being, quote-unquote, ‘fake leaders,’ and say all the members were the enemy of the people, politicians would be outraged, and rightfully so. It infuriates me that we don’t have the same amount of outrage when freedom of the press is under attack.”
His faith can also make life tricky, now that he is running a paper that keeps a close watch on the Mormon Church in a state where it holds significant power.
He was put to the test his first month as owner, when Terry Orme, then the paper’s top editor, stepped into his office with a question: Would he provide a few hundred thousand dollars so that The Tribune could sue the church?
“This was my first decision as publisher,” Mr. Huntsman said.
Reporters at the paper were already deep into a story on Brigham Young University, a school owned by the Mormon Church, and the newsroom needed the owner’s help to dig deeper. An early article told the story of female students who said they had been investigated or punished for supposedly violating the school’s honor code after reporting that they had been sexually assaulted.
The Brigham Young honor code requires students to “live a chaste and virtuous life” and forbids “homosexual behavior,” “revealing” clothing, and the use of alcohol, tobacco and coffee.
Because the university police department declined reporters’ requests for access to its correspondence with the administration, Mr. Orme said a lawsuit was the best way to obtain the relevant emails.
Mr. Huntsman said he would have to think about it.
“In the back of my mind I thought, ‘Is this just going to be another example of The Tribune going against the church?’” he said. “In my heart, I knew this was in the best interest of the students.”
Ten minutes later, he told the editor he would cover the cost.
Three years on, the lawsuit is still going. It has failed to shake loose the records the paper hoped to obtain, but the reporters kept hammering away and won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for their efforts. In giving the award, the Pulitzer judges commended The Tribune for its “vivid reports revealing the perverse, punitive and cruel treatment given to sexual assault victims at Brigham Young University.”
An Accidental Publisher
Mr. Huntsman was the sixth of nine children born to Jon Huntsman Sr. and his wife, the former Karen Haight. While still enrolled at the University of Utah after a two-year mission in Japan, he married Ms. Wirthlin, a Brigham Young student who was one of 17 children. Twenty-six years into their marriage, they have eight children from the ages of 11 to 25.
Early on, the family decamped to Melbourne, Australia, where Mr. Huntsman helped run a Huntsman chemical plant. From there he spent three years at the company office near Houston before rounding off his education at the Wharton School. “I had just had my third child, which I didn’t realize would be such an anomaly in business school,” he said.
After a stint at Deutsche Bank in New York, he returned to his hometown and joined his father in the Huntsman building. In 2015, he took control of the private equity fund that manages much of the family fortune.
Jon Huntsman Sr., who died last year at 80, was a towering figure in Utah — a tycoon whose company created the clamshell container for the Big Mac and produced chemicals for a variety of everyday products. He served in the Nixon administration and ran for governor of Utah in 1988. With his wife in 1995, he founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
“His whole mission in life was to alleviate human suffering,” Mr. Huntsman said of his father, tearing up as he spoke. “I’m sorry for getting emotional.”
His siblings added to the family’s clout. The eldest, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a longtime diplomat who is now ambassador to Russia, served as Utah’s governor from 2005 to 2009 and ran for president in 2012. Peter R. Huntsman, the second-born, leads the Huntsman Corporation, a publicly traded company with 10,000 employees and sales in 2018 of more than $9 billion.
For years, Jon Sr. had his eye on the Salt Lake paper. The Trib, as it is locally known, is the main source of accountability for the church in a state where the governor, the two United States senators and the four representatives in Congress belong to the Mormon Church, as do the majority of state representatives.
The church is also intertwined with journalism in Utah. It owns the parent company of The Deseret News, The Tribune’s main competitor. And since 1952, The Tribune has had a joint operating agreement with The News, allowing the two papers to share a printing press and business costs.
Christena Huntsman Durham, one of Mr. Huntsman’s sisters, said he is someone able to keep the community from losing its independent voice. “Paul is the quiet giant in our family,” Ms. Durham said. “He has a deep faith in people and their goodness. But he believes that with every organization you need checks and balances.”
Last summer, the paper followed its series on Brigham Young University with a two-part investigation on the sexual assault of female missionaries living abroad and the church’s tepid response.
Mr. Huntsman said covering the church is personally important to him. “I have daughters, and if they want to go serve a mission, these are things I want to know,” he said.
The religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack said her boss has not backed down in his dealings with the church. When its representatives have called to complain about her stories, she said, “he seems to actually enjoy that.”
Managing a Newsroom
Mr. Huntsman’s father used to encourage him to take a “heavier hand” as publisher, but he ignored that advice. “The newsroom belongs to the editor,” he said.
Roughly three months after becoming owner, however, Mr. Huntsman replaced the top editor, Mr. Orme, who had spent nearly 40 years at the paper, with Jennifer Napier-Pearce, a former Tribune reporter and onetime host of its online program and radio show.
“Was I surprised?” Mr. Orme said. “Yes. But you take over a business and you want the people at the top to be your people.”
Mr. Huntsman called the firing “a shocking move” that was also “the right move,” adding, “Jennifer has shifted the culture from a print-centric culture to a digital one.”
The fact that he is a Huntsman in a state where Huntsmans often make news has also come into play. Some of the paper’s reporters were “very nervous,” he said, when they were reporting on a feud between executives at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah.
“I told them, ‘You just go and do the work you always do,’” he said. “‘Don’t worry about me. The only thing I’m not going to do is be a source.’”
Having access to reporters can be tempting, however.
“I did hint to our newsroom to follow the money and you’ll find the story, which they did,” he said.
He sometimes contacts journalists to congratulate them on stories, he said, and he once called the editorial cartoonist Pat Bagley to ask why he never made fun of Democrats.
“I told him there are no Democrats in Utah to make fun of,” Mr. Bagley said.
Figuring out how to hang on to readers willing to pay for journalism during the bumpy digital transition — a problem that has flummoxed newspapers nationwide — is Mr. Huntsman’s greatest challenge. In the 20 years before he bought The Tribune, the paper changed owners frequently, eventually ending up the property of Digital First Media, the majority of which is owned by the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
This is the group, called the “destroyer of newspapers” by the Bloomberg columnist Joe Nocera, whose cost-cutting measures led to a revolt at The Denver Post last year. Now called MediaNews Group, it is attempting a takeover of the Gannett newspaper chain.
Mr. Huntsman and his father looked into buying the paper a few years after Digital First bought it. “We were quite frankly concerned that The Salt Lake Tribune would be shut down,” Mr. Huntsman said, “which would have a devastating impact on the entire community.”
The deal that most concerned father and son came about in 2013, when Digital First renegotiated the joint operating agreement between The Tribune and The News. Historically, the two had split revenue 60-40, in favor of The Tribune. Under the revised deal, the church-owned company controlling The News paid Digital First roughly $23 million for The Tribune’s share of the printing press and a new revenue split that favored The News.
After the arrangement came to light, a community group called the Utah Newspaper Project filed a federal lawsuit. The Justice Department started investigating the arrangement — and Mr. Huntsman started working on a deal.
A Way Ahead
After studying what it means to own a daily in the 21st century, Mr. Huntsman reimagined what The Tribune would look like as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, divorced from the harsh business realities that have weakened or killed off papers all across the country. He recently started applying for Internal Revenue Service approval, which could take more than a year.
Under the plan, the paper would take in revenue from ads, subscriptions and philanthropic donations. To achieve his aim, Mr. Huntsman hired Fraser Nelson, a veteran nonprofit executive. A. Scott Anderson, a potential donor who is the head of Zions Bank, which has its headquarters in Salt Lake City, said he was “very supportive of what Paul is doing.”
If the plan is approved, The Tribune will have to relinquish something held dear by most papers: political endorsements. Federal law prohibits 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from taking part in partisan activity.
“I’m looking forward to getting out of the endorsement business,” Mr. Huntsman said.
If The Tribune is a nonprofit, its contents will have to be deemed beneficial to the community. So where would that leave things like lifestyle coverage and sports? The paper has addressed those issues in its application, Ms. Nelson said.
However it comes out, Mr. Huntsman said, he had to do something drastic to keep the paper going.
“My father used to say, ‘When you are the one responsible for the payroll, it is going to keep you up at night,’” he said. “I didn’t really appreciate that until I acquired The Salt Lake Tribune. I took the losses and subsidized the paper as long as I could. The losses were devastating to me personally. I said, ‘I have to make a change.’”