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News » Private Eye

Newspaper Rap

SLC's two local dailies are more anemic than ever



For the second time in less than a week, my morning newspaper has landed in near-perfect position for me pick it up rather easily. For that, I thank my newspaper person for such deliberate accuracy. However, on both occasions, when I peeled back the plastic wrap and plopped the newspaper on my kitchen table, I was startled to find that my read for the day would not be The Salt Lake Tribune, to which I subscribe, but the Deseret News.

Hey, I know there have been changes at both papers of late, including a new round of layoffs at The Salt Lake Tribune, but if I wanted the Deseret News, I’d ask for it.

My grandfather used to read the Deseret News religiously, no pun intended. He was a Greek immigrant, a non-Mormon, but subscribed to the Deseret News because it was an afternoon paper and he spent his life catching up on the days’ events at the end of his working day. Afternoon newspapers were useful to early risers like farmers or miners. He lived right behind our home in Bingham Canyon. We took the morning paper. Thus, I grew up reading both newspapers and always felt that both of them were pretty good reads. To be sure, my grandfather diligently taught me to toss away the Church News section of the Deseret News. Not even my grandmother—as purebred Mormon pioneer stock as they come—cared for the Church News section.

Good reads or not, I preferred The Salt Lake Tribune into adulthood, seldom bothering with the Deseret News. Then, in recent years, I began to find an appreciation for the Deseret News—a topic I’ve written about before. I thought it was an easier read, had better graphics, told stories well and had a bank of very talented writers. Having been taught early on to distinguish between the core of the Deseret News and the churchy parts of the paper, I simply liked what I read, and I often avoided the editorial page. I was never a person who automatically rejected the Deseret News simply because the LDS Church was its owner. After all, I’m a fan of independent ownership.

Then two things changed.

One, I became far more aware of the secretive machinations of how our two dailies have operated since the early 1950s, essentially protected from market forces by what has often been generously termed a legal monopoly—a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) that enables both papers to survive under the supposed notion that a city should not be left with one newspaper. This was the wisdom of the times, and the JOA was made legal in 1970 under the Newspaper Preservation Act, essentially a hall pass exempting them from certain anti-trust laws, and thus a license to print money.

One can argue the merits of having one or several newspapers in any given city, or the merits of a JOA operation and the economics of the publishing business, but what is seldom discussed is whether any JOA (nearly 75 percent of them no longer exist—ours is a dinosaur) actually makes for better newspapering in the first place. I believe it hurts a newspaper, and as evidence, I point to the Deseret News on my kitchen table. It’s not much of a major metro newspaper these days, is it? Woefully, the same can be said of The Salt Lake Tribune, which today is one part newspaper, two parts anemia.

The second thing that changed was how the Deseret News—despite the “protections” of the JOA—has pretty much abandoned this city as a legitimate news journal. It’s become a faith-based publication now—especially online—and is designed to protect and promote but one faith. You want to know how many Mormons have made the finals of Dancing With the Stars or play in the NFL? The Deseret News is there for you. That’s well and fine, but why does that style of journalism qualify as needing propping up from the federal government?

That’s especially onerous, since the latest JOA compact seems unfairly stacked in favor of the Deseret News, which now gets 70 percent of the pie as opposed to the 42 percent it had received for decades, as it was the smaller journal, the one supposedly needing protection from failing. (Note to self: Describe another day how daily newspaper-circulation audits are a bunch of hooey.)

This is a fair question—why should 70 percent of the proceeds of every dollar I spend on a subscription to The Salt Lake Tribune go the Deseret News? Should restaurants allow 70 percent of their Tribune advertising budget to be handed over to the very minds that proactively hurt their business (with Zion Curtain and other nutty liquor-law advocacy)? The Deseret News has made a tectonic switch from a local daily to a marketing machine. Maybe it always was, and I was blind. But the boys who run the show over there these days don’t even pretend to be anything but a PR juggernaut, and my money shouldn’t be forced to support that.

Hey, here’s a scary thought: Round up some dough or call your rich uncle and tell him we’ll take over the Tribune—and maybe some others, too. Bring a few million bucks and we’ll give Salt Lake City a new kind of newspaper, not the subservient ones—one strapped by religion, one strapped by cash—that the JOA has delivered us. Just bring a wallet; we’ll do the rest. It will be worth it just to watch all the dancing that’s sure to happen. I’m going to now to see what’s available ...

Twitter: @JohnSaltas