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Editor column: Who should own The Salt Lake Tribune?

Published May 9, 2014 7:21 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Who should own The Salt Lake Tribune?

It's a question asked often these days. But before anyone can answer, two issues need resolution.

First, is the newspaper even for sale? It's been widely reported and speculated upon, but Alden Global Capital, the New York hedge fund that holds majority ownership, isn't saying, at least not publicly. Nor is Digital First Media, the company hired by Alden to manage 75 daily papers, including The Tribune.

Conventional wisdom suggests that if a buyer stepped forward, and Alden liked the offer, there would be a sale. After all, hedge funds aren't in the business of long-term investments. But no one is on the record saying The Tribune is for sale.

The second issue is a huge obstacle in the newly renegotiated joint-operating agreement between The Tribune and the Deseret News, giving the LDS Church-owned newspaper veto power over any offer made by a prospective buyer.

That violates the spirit, if not the law, behind the agreement, the purpose of which is to preserve two strong independent editorial voices. The Tribune's competitor gets to choose The Tribune's new owner? Independent voices?

That's a deal-breaker before a deal is even proposed — and needs to be removed.

Now, back to the original question: Who should own The Tribune?

The trend during the past few decades has been for consolidation, for newspapers to be swallowed up into chains to achieve economies of scale. That sounds good on a ledger sheet, but for individual newspapers, it can feel like you are dealing with an absentee landlord.

So, if The Tribune is going to be sold, I would argue for local ownership — someone, or a group of someones, who value our role in Utah, and want that role preserved and enhanced.

There are other qualities I'd want in a Tribune owner, first among them patience and a willingness to try new strategies. We are in an information revolution in which audiences are leaving traditional news platforms, such as print, and heading toward mobile devices. We have to live in both worlds, keeping print strong but investing and innovating in the digital world.

An owner needs to be entrepreneurial, open to finding new revenue streams, new models. The mind-set of "we need to return to the old Tribune" won't fly. We need to invent the new Tribune.

A new owner should be a good partner to the Deseret News in our joint operation, Media One, but needs to stand up for The Tribune's interests. A new owner needs to take the long view.

More than anything, an owner needs a stout spine and be willing to back the journalists, and let them do their jobs without interference — to not cower when powerful people and institutions take issue with a story.

The reporters, photographers and editors here know what they are doing. They prove it every day. It can get hot in this newsroom. Stand up for good journalism, and The Tribune staff will not let you down.

Any takers? Assuming, of course, that The Tribune is for sale.

Terry Orme is The Tribune's editor and publisher. Reach him at orme@sltrib.com.