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Op-Ed: Utah needs a financially secure Tribune

Published November 30, 2013 4:25 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When I quit writing editorials for The Salt Lake Tribune in 1998, I thought I was through imposing my opinions on Utah. I can no longer sit silently while the community I loved lets its most fundamental, hard-fought freedoms vanish.

Since 1871, The Tribune has offset the power of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to control Utah territory. The church repeatedly tried to extinguish that independent voice, but from the start, more Utahns, including Mormons, read The Tribune than the church-owned Deseret News. They realized that a free press — the open exchange of ideas — is vital to Americans' ability to control their leaders, their institutions and their own lives.

When the cost of publishing two major newspapers threatened their viability 61 years ago, Tribune and Deseret News officers agreed, with U.S. Department of Justice approval, to keep news departments separate while combining advertising, printing and delivery. That joint operating agreement (JOA) has been uneasy, with The Tribune generating most of the revenue and readership while each paper held veto power over potential purchasers of the other. Profits have been split 58-42 percent to reflect The Tribune's primary contribution.

Tribune news reports embarrassing to the LDS Church periodically caused friction, conflict that undoubtedly influenced the sale of The Tribune to MediaNews Group, a non-Utah group, in 2000. The final coup now awaits federal approval.

The LDS Church, through Deseret News Publishing, has designed JOA amendments that reverse the profit split, leaving The Tribune 30 percent of profits for a news staff already severely reduced by financial cutbacks. Unlike the Deseret News, The Tribune has no wealthy church for financial infusions but now must make a profit for investors to stay afloat.

Yes, newspapers are dying or changing form across the country, but The Tribune's news staff has been operational despite the trend. Its demise would not only be tragic but downright dangerous to individual freedom in Utah, which essentially is a theocracy run by the LDS Church. If the Deseret News is allowed to swallow up, squeeze out or co-opt The Tribune, there will be no other viable alternative voice for Utahns, no check on the church's power over the state. The LDS Church also dominates Utah's broadcast news media through Bonneville International.

In deciding whether the proposed JOA amendments satisfy terms of the Newspaper Preservation Act, the Justice Department' antitrust lawyers must understand that the outcome will affect the average Utahn's First Amendment speech and religion rights. Moreover, it is imperative for Utahns to start shouting from the mountain peaks of Mt. Olympus to ensure this newspaper — and alternate voices — endure in in their state.

Editorial independence in Utah may be of scant concern to The Tribune's parent company, MediaNews Group, and the management company, Digital First Media, that has accepted both the JOA amendments and a cash settlement to relinquish control of the newspapers' printing, distribution and advertising.

That is understandable. MediaNews and Digital First Media are not owned and operated locally but must make profits for Alden Global Capital, an international hedge fund. These investors don't necessarily live in a state dominated by one church.

And what do I care, now that I'm a Californian, what happens in Utah? Because for most of my life, Utah was my home and The Tribune my refuge. Because I was a non-Mormon in a Mormon land where I didn't belong until I realized The Tribune was there to stick up for me and thousands like me. Because I treasure the First Amendment.

Diane Cole was a reporter and editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune.