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The Salt Lake Tribune's publisher will step down and its two top editors will retire early as part of deep staff cuts at Utah's largest newspaper.

In what amounts to a sweeping and historic restructuring of operations, The Tribune laid off 17 full-time and two part-time employees, for a staff reduction of nearly 20 percent. The moves, announced Thursday in a series of tear-filled staff meetings, stemmed from ongoing declines in revenues.

Tribune Editor Nancy Conway and Editorial Page Editor Vern Anderson will both retire at the end of September, while Publisher William Dean Singleton will relinquish that role.

The cuts — felt in all departments but falling heaviest on business and features reporters — are meant to position the paper as it and legacy news outlets worldwide shift their resources and focus toward digital publishing, particularly mobile devices, the Web and social media sites.

While The Tribune's audience is growing, advertising revenues flowing from that readership are now a fraction of their levels less than two decades ago, when the paper first launched its website, Thursday's announcement follows at least three prior rounds of layoffs in recent years, though none of this size.

"No question, this is a blow to The Tribune,'' said Conway, 71, who departs the newsroom's top post Sept. 30 after a decade at its helm. "It's been a very sad day. To see excellent journalists walking out the door, that doesn't make anybody feel good."

Terry Orme, a Tribune managing editor for nearly a decade, will take over as editor and publisher Oct. 1. A 35-year veteran at the paper, Orme has worked as copy boy, reporter, film critic, features editor and news editor, including coverage of Utah's preparations for the 2002 Olympics.

"All the people who are leaving today are good people,'' Orme said in one of several heart-wrenching gatherings with staff. "Nobody deserved this. They will be missed very much."

Deputy Editor Tim Fitzpatrick has been named editorial page editor and continues his role as editor for operations. Lisa Carricaburu, also a managing editor, will take responsibility for news gathering across all departments.

Singleton stays on as chairman of the board for The Salt Lake Tribune and retains his other roles with the MediaNews Group newspaper chain and its flagship, The Denver Post. The Tribune is one of 57 major newspapers operated by MediaNews Group in 11 states.

In a written statement, Singleton wished Conway and Anderson well and offered praise for Orme.

"Terry and his team," he said, "provide the innovative and stable leadership that will take The Tribune into a changing but exciting future."

Anderson, who has shaped the editorial voice of The Tribune for the past 10 years, came to the paper in 1999 after leading the Utah Associated Press bureau for 19 years. He has penned many of the paper's most memorable opinions, including the endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2012.

Anderson and Conway said their retirements were intended to lessen further cuts in Tribune staffing, now at roughly 93 employees, down from a newsroom of 148 reporters and editors in fall 2011 — a 37 percent decline.

Likening the impact of technology on traditional news to "a cyclone,'' Conway said The Tribune would nonetheless keep emphasizing breaking news and hard-hitting watchdog journalism for which it has been known to generations of Utah readers.

Still, one media observer called the news of major staff reductions "sobering'' for Utahns and journalism.

"The Tribune has played a historic role in Utah as the independent watchdog, not tied to any large institution, unlike the [LDS Church-owned] Deseret News,'' said Glen Feighery, associate professor of communication at the University of Utah. "That's a loss. But there is the broader loss with the steady erosion of professionally gathered news across the industry."

Tribune editors warned staffers of impending firings shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday, then delivered sealed envelopes to each employee, telling each of his or her fate in writing. Senior managers then met individually with laid-off workers as colleagues clustered in small groups in the newsroom to hug and weep, stopping at times to write and edit stories for online and the next day's print edition.

Cuts affected workers ranging from entry level to several nearing retirement. Those let go will receive undisclosed severance packages, managers said.

Conway has led The Tribune since 2003, when Singleton hired her to steer the paper through a scandal over revelations that two reporters had sold inaccurate information to The National Enquirer. Conway, The Tribune's first woman editor in its 142-year history, gained a reputation as a journalist who would stick up for Utahns and restore integrity to the paper.

In 2006, she played a key role in forming the Utah Media Coalition, a group of news organizations intent on defending Utah's open-records laws. Five years later, the coalition successfully opposed HB477, a short-lived plan to severely restrict public access to government records under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act, known as GRAMA.

"Nancy was in the trenches every day leading that fight,'' said media attorney Jeffrey Hunt, who worked alongside Conway in the media alliance. "She was relentless. She was not going to let GRAMA go down on her watch."

It didn't. Under intense public and media pressure, including a rare front-page Tribune editorial, the Legislature repealed HB477.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert commended Conway and Anderson for "their meaningful and thoughtful contributions'' in informing Utahns.

"These are changing times for news media," Herbert said in a statement, "and, while it's difficult to see change impact our local newspapers, I expect The Tribune will move forward and adapt as needed."

Fitzpatrick has produced award-winning work as a reporter, news editor, editorial writer and managing editor. Recently, he has overseen technology at the paper.

Carricaburu, managing editor of sports, business and features, will become the sole managing editor. She was metro editor at The Standard-Examiner in Ogden before joining The Tribune in 1996.

During Conway's tenure, the newspaper has experimented with niche publications aimed at reaching Wasatch Front neighborhoods and Spanish-speaking audiences. Each eventually folded.

The Tribune also has dramatically expanded its online staff and reoriented its newsroom to a 24-hour publication model. During that time, traffic to has grown exponentially.

Today, the Tribune's Web presence attracts almost 25 million page views a month. Slipping print circulation, however, was estimated in May 2013 at 104,203 daily and 138,851 on Sundays.

Conway said The Tribune and the U.S. news industry as a whole continue to struggle at making money from those online readers as news-consumption patterns evolve rapidly and advertisers increasingly steer their dollars away from traditional, general-audience publications and toward more targeted media outlets.

"Nobody has the answer yet,'' said Conway. "If they did, we'd be doing it."

Twitter: @Tony_Semerad .