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So who’s winning the circulation war? Tribune or Deseret News?
Media » Latest audits bolster claims on both sides as debate heats up over new operating deal.

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"I agree on some level that they are serving a public interest in writing about subjects like religious liberties and pornography, but what is the depth and breadth in local coverage if you’re doing these other kinds of things?’’ asked Joel Campbell, associate professor of journalism at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and a former News reporter and editor. "They have not abandoned that coverage, but they certainly don’t spend the resources on the local market that I wish they would."

Because of the ways it tracks paid circulation, the alliance doesn’t gather specific numbers showing how much of the News’ circulation gains are due to its National Edition. Gilbert tells industry insiders the weekly supplement has reached 75,000 copies, around two-thirds of those mailed to subscribers across the U.S.

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With its focus on family, charity, financial responsibility and values in the media, the edition is now being delivered to subscribers of a growing number of Utah and national newspapers through special business deals with the News. Copies also are free to students and others at about 30 newsstands across BYU’s campus in Provo as well as outlets at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg.

BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead said the school pays the News for copies taken from the stands, but he would not say how many newspapers that entails each week.

The News is the only paper with that kind of circulation agreement at BYU, he said.

Circulation numbers from twice-yearly audits would otherwise be a routine story. But these are not typical times in the 62-year-old JOA that has helped both Salt Lake City newspapers survive through the years.

Official scrutiny » Antitrust lawyers with the DOJ continue to dig into the deal, crafted last fall and brought to light by an anonymous note sent to Tribune reporters. The department approves all newspaper JOAs under a 1970 law meant to help preserve editorial outlets by letting them work together on business operations while running separate newsrooms.

Federal attorneys remain tight-lipped about their investigation but several sources say the DOJ has subpoenaed various parties to the JOA in recent weeks.

Former Tribune editors and ex-staffers also are decrying the JOA changes, which cut The Tribune’s share of print profits by more than half and sold the newspaper’s stake in printing facilities in West Valley City. The deal, they contend, threatens to significantly worsen the paper’s budget struggles as it transitions from print to digital.

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A former Tribune owner, meanwhile, says he’s interested in purchasing the paper, but alleges he and others are being shut out by new contract provisions that let managers at the News screen would-be Tribune buyers.

"This should be the thing that has people upset," said Phil McCarthey, whose family owned The Tribune for generations before losing control of the paper after a lucrative merger with former cable company Tele-Communications Inc.

"The question," McCarthey said, "for readers, the newspaper owners and the community is this: Why would a joint-operating agreement have ever been amended to give the D-News the veto right to decide who owns the other newspaper?"

The Tribune-News deal also is the target of a grass-roots petition, with 13,825 signatures and counting as of Friday. That effort continues to build support for the DOJ’s intervention, asserting that top News managers and executives at hedge fund-owned Digital First agreed to the new pact with the ultimate goal of shutting down the paper.

State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the petition’s author, said concern is widening about the prospect of losing a crucial Utah forum for debate on a range of sensitive subjects such as liquor laws, LGBT issues, clean air and political conflicts of interest.

"There is a fine balance in our community between the LDS and non-LDS points of view, and it’s as good now as it has been in a long time," Dabakis said. "I’m desperately afraid if that editorial voice is lost, we end up with a community that is tremendously divided."


Twitter: @Tony_Semerad

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