Attorneys for Utah's two largest daily newspapers want to mark as classified millions of pages of documents in its legal dispute with a pro-newspaper organization—a request that lawyers for the organization say is unusual and burdensome.
The parties met behind closed doors in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City on Wednesday to discuss the request. Joan O'Brien, a founder of the group Citizens for Two Voices, has sued The Salt Lake Tribune
and the Deseret News
, which share advertising, printing and distribution wings, over an agreement the two entered into in 2013
that some believe will kill the Tribune
Karra Porter, an attorney for Citizens for Two Voices, says it is common for parties in a federal suit to seek a protective order for certain documents. This, she says, forces the party seeking to classify information to do so themselves. In this case, Porter says, the newspapers are asking the court to allow them to classify significant chunks of information, leaving the burden on the plaintiff to discover what about the mounds of documents is classified.
"In our view, it makes it more difficult," Porter says, adding that it's "not common" to receive such a wide-reaching request for anonymity.
The two papers have for decades functioned under a joint operating agreement (JOA), which, for the sake of preserving both papers, allows them to combine business operations. The JOA also allows the papers to collude and operate as a monopoly in a situation that, without the JOA and an exemption from anti-trust laws, would be deemed illegal.
Attorneys for the papers have argued that the new JOA, which now gives 70 percent of the revenue generated from print advertising to the LDS Church-owned Deseret News
, and also sold off the printing presses to the paper, could soon bury the Tribune
Key for O'Brien is obtaining the exact amount the Tribune's
revenue and presses were sold for, the amount of money the once profitable paper is now bleeding each month and whether or not a provision in the JOA that gives the Deseret News
veto power over a sale of the Tribune
has been used.
Porter says the two sides will negotiate over the next two weeks about the scope of what should be deemed classified—a process that she's hopeful will conclude without too much fighting in court.
In the meantime, few people have a clear idea of what the Tribune's
finances look like. The paper's owner, Digital First Media, which is owned by a New York City hedge fund, indicated a couple of months ago that it was looking for buyers for some of its many newspaper products.
Under the current JOA, however, it's unclear if anyone with any practical business savvy would want to pick up the Tribune
. It rents space in The Gateway mall for its newsroom, rents printing presses from its rival and now claims only 30 percent of the print revenue—still by far the most lucrative way to generate cash in the newspaper business.
And with a larger daily circulation, it's widely believed that the Tribune
, not the Deseret News
, is responsible for creating the majority of those print profits—a fact that makes it all the more important for advocates for the paper's survival to discover how much it was sold off for and where that money went.