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Joint Operating Agreements were formed to ensure that rival newspapers competing in the same market could survive and even thrive. In essence, the agreements allow pairs of newspapers to collude and be exempt from federal antitrust laws. This allows the papers’ business departments to consolidate and focus on making money rather than undercutting each other into oblivion.
For a long time, this worked. Papers with JOAs thrived, while other papers struggled; many closed, including several in Salt Lake City.
At the height of their popularity, nearly 30 JOAs, by some estimates, were in place across the country. According to Rick Edmonds at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, only six JOAs remain.
Two high-profile collapses of JOAs have occurred in the past decade. One involved the Rocky Mountain News, which folded in 2009, ceding all power to its partner, The Denver Post, which is also owned by Digital First.
The second was the implosion of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which in 2009 shuttered its printed product but still operates a leaner online operation. The Seattle Times, its JOA partner, survived.
The difference in Utah—and in many people’s minds, it is a massive difference—is that if the Tribune were to fold, the surviving paper would be owned by a powerful religious institution.
As it’s blazed a disruptive trail across the changing media landscape, the Deseret News has morphed from a community newspaper into a publication that proudly and publicly focuses on stories about religious values.
On its website, the Deseret News states that its “mission is to be a leading news brand for faith- and family-oriented audiences in Utah and around the world.”
The first step in this direction came in 2010, when the Deseret News laid off 85 employees, a full 43 percent of its staff, and began publishing pieces by LDS Church public-affairs employees and citizen journalists to fill the void.
This new model has served the brand well in the digital realms with its large, built-in Mormon audience that increasingly seeks out news to its liking. Gilbert, the paper’s CEO, lays it out in a video on the website, saying he wants the paper to be a “voice that you can trust, that shares your perspective and brings the world to you.”
In other words, Conway says, the Deseret News is “news with a view. It’s outside the standard practices of news organizations, and it’s really seen as the voice of the church.”
Joel Campbell, an associate professor of journalism at Brigham Young University who worked at the Deseret News for 15 years, says the paper’s blunt stance on covering news from its own religious angle raises serious questions about its value as a community newspaper.
Utahns, Campbell says, need their newspapers covering local issues and local government—like city hall, the state legislature and elected officials such as the scandal-ridden former Utah Attorney General John Swallow—not necessarily national and international religious-liberty issues.
“To me, [local news] is a lot more important, and there’s not as many people watching that,” he says.
Much of what the Tribune does, Campbell says, involves going to court with the government over open-records requests—an often thankless and costly process undertaken so that Utahns know the business being conducted on their behalf.
“It’s always been a very strong, strong investigative watchdog newspaper,” Campbell says. “I’d hate to see it go. It would be a bad thing.”
Conway says she doesn’t fault the Deseret News for staking a claim to its broad and devoted church audience. But because the church’s paper has made its intentions clear, she says, the importance of preserving an independent voice is paramount.
“I think The Salt Lake Tribune is seen as a social necessity,” Conway says. “It is a counterpoint—a balance—to the very powerful voice of the church. It needs to survive; it needs to stay strong.”
Deseret News CEO Clark Gilbert noted in a letter published in his paper in April that the Deseret News is “committed to the market’s demand for multiple editorial voices, and the amended JOA upholds that commitment.”
Critics of the new JOA, however, say these comments don’t square with reality.
How taking revenue away from the Tribune could be good for it is “sort of a head-scratcher,” Conway says. “The new JOA split speaks to something other than that, doesn’t it?”
Former Tribune Editor Jay Shelledy, who is currently a professional-in-residence at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, calls a Tribune-less world a “scary scenario.”
“In any situation where there’s a quasi theocracy ... any state where it’s politically or religiously dominated, an independent voice or a countervoice for that matter, is critical to the survival of diverse thinking,” he says.
Shortly after Orme made the latest round of layoffs in April, the renegotiated JOA and its possible consequences began to pick up press. Springing from this exposure was the website SaveTheTribune.com. Formed by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, it includes a petition urging the Department of Justice to follow through with its investigation and, in Dabakis’ words, “stop the impending death of the S.L. Tribune.”
At press time, the petition had garnered 13,149 signatures.
Aside from the pure belief that journalism is important to democracy and that the Tribune is a valuable alternative to check the powerful interests of the LDS Church, there’s little to support a sound financial argument for owning the Tribune. In the past decade, the paper has transitioned from owning its 90-year-old digs on Main Street to paying for rented space at The Gateway shopping center, and from owning interest in the printing press to, in essence, paying the Deseret News to produce its product. And then there’s the revised Joint Operating Agreement hamstringing current and future revenue.
“What makes the paper not worth very much is this JOA itself,” says Joan O’Brien, a former Tribune reporter.
Dominic Welch, who was the Tribune’s publisher from 1994 to 2002 and a 37-year Tribune employee, says it’s hard to envision what future exists for the paper.
“They sold the Tribune building, they sold the plant,” Welch says. “Now they just got a bunch of reporters sitting in a rented room, and they’re laying off reporters.”
Another hurdle exists in any future sale of the Tribune: the stipulation in the JOA that requires the consent of the Deseret News. This clause first appeared in the JOA in 2001, shortly after Dean Singleton, then chairman of MediaNews Group Co., purchased the Tribune.
Singleton didn’t return calls seeking comment.
“We don’t know how often that’s been used,” O’Brien says of the church’s veto power.
O’Brien, daughter of the late Jerry O’Brien, who was publisher of the Tribune from 1983 to 1994, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the legality of the new JOA, and has formed a website, UtahNewspaperProject.org, that advocates for the survival of the Tribune.
O’Brien says that she and at least two other people close to the Tribune have been interviewed by investigators with the DOJ.
In her letter to the DOJ, O’Brien says the Deseret News vetoed an attempt in 2013 by philanthropist and business magnate Jon Huntsman Sr. and Singleton to buy the Tribune from Alden Global.
Huntsman declined to be interviewed for this story, saying through a spokeswoman that he is “sensitive to the ongoing DOJ investigation and would rather not talk to anyone until such a time as he feels it would be appropriate to do so.”
Although the Deseret News’ official position has been that it doesn’t want to own the Tribune, once upon a time, it did.
A garbled legal battle that began in the late 1990s and spilled into the new century involved three potential buyers for the Tribune, which had been owned by the McCarthey family for more than a century before it sold the paper to Tele-Communications Inc., which was in turn gobbled up by AT&T.
The latter had no interest in owning the Tribune, and the boardroom scrum that ensued involved the church, the McCarthey family and Singleton all vying to own the paper.
In the end, the church’s efforts never materialized. And, according to a Tribune story from 2002 documenting the ownership struggle, AT&T went with Singleton’s $200 million offer over the $180 million posted by the McCartheys.
Thomas McCarthey, who worked at the Tribune for 30 years and was co-editor with Shelledy, says his family is “moderately interested” in once again owning the paper. But he doubts the church would approve a sale to his family, and says the Tribune’s share of profits makes owning the paper “not enticing at all” from a financial standpoint.
“I’m just hoping the Tribune can make it for a little while, even the end of the year,” McCarthey says. “They still bring in more revenue than the Deseret by far—and the bigger circulation. But when your hands are tied at 30 percent … business-wise, it’s not that lucrative of a proposition. It would be strictly to have that independent voice.”
If the Tribune ends up in the hands of a wealthy local such as Huntsman or McCarthey, the paper would have come full circle from family ownership, to massive media conglomerate ownership, to hedge-fund ownership and back again to local ownership—a trip that would track closely with other large newspaper sales.
One recent example involves The Boston Globe. The New York Times Company sold the paper in 2013 to New England businessman and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry for $70 million. The sale, in which the Times took a more than $1 billion loss, made evident the vastly depleted value of newspapers.
“There is no hope for the Tribune under the present situation,” Shelledy says. “To get a local buyer is the answer, but to get a local buyer, you’re somehow going to have to unbuckle yourself from that JOA.”
CLOSE TO THE EDGE
Even though the Tribune’s employees have been culled, the paper’s supporters say it continues to provide a valuable service. But these cuts, Orme says, cannot continue.
Years of bludgeoning the newsroom, he says, has led to diminished coverage of the state’s municipalities. And the Tribune no longer has a reporter in Cedar City to swiftly cover issues in the southern half of the state.
“When do you hit that point where quality becomes a true issue?” Orme asks. “I’d say we’re getting awfully close.”
To Orme, one truth about mass corporate hedge-fund ownership has become clear: From the distance of a couple of thousand miles, and with hundreds of other newspaper “assets,” it’s impossible for a portfolio manager in some tower in New York City to make the best decisions for local papers and their readers.
“I don’t see how it is possible for somebody back in New York to have an inkling of the importance of an individual newspaper to the community it serves when you have that many newspapers and that many communities,” Orme says. “I just don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think they think that way.”
Shelledy—ever the blunt editor, but no longer concerned with offending his paper’s owner, distills what perhaps Orme means: “They don’t give a damn about anything but profit.”
See page 3 for more on digital vs. print profits, and a list of Tribune staffers who've been laid off since 2011.