A federal judge will hear arguments in September on whether supporters of The Salt Lake Tribune have a legal basis for suing to halt a revised business arrangement between Utah’s two largest newspapers.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups set a Sept. 8 hearing in the high-profile case to address, in part, whether a group of former Tribune employees has standing to challenge the amended operating agreement between The Tribune and its rival, the LDS Church-owned Deseret News.
The News’ managers and The Tribune’s corporate owner, Digital First Media, signed their current joint-operating agreement (JOA) in October. The deal cut in half The Tribune’s share of profits from the two dailies, gave the News control of joint operations and sold off The Tribune’s stake in a West Valley City printing plant.
The group of former Tribune employees and community members, Citizens for Two Voices, alleges the agreement has fatally weakened the paper’s finances and given the News too much control, creating a potential for irreparable harm to Utah if the state’s largest secular daily goes out of business.
Digital First executives deny that claim, asserting instead that the JOA changes were part of a strategy to expand revenues from digital publishing and strengthen The Tribune’s competitive position for the future.
The Sept. 8 hearing in Salt Lake City also will see attorneys argue whether the Newspaper Preservation Act insulates the News and Digital First from having the JOA challenged in court, Waddoups said.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, lawyers for the News and Digital First contend Citizens does not have the legal authority to sue over the new JOA, which they say is exempt from outside scrutiny as a private business matter allowed under the federal act.
Lawyers for Citizens, also called the Utah Newspaper Project, counter that their legal challenge is authorized because the JOA has been so radically changed, it no longer deserves special protections from antitrust laws. Their suit, they say, is filed on behalf of readers, advertisers and community members fearful of losing The Tribune’s independent journalistic voice.
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