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Op-ed: New agreement poses a double threat to The Tribune

By Joan O’Brien

First Published Apr 25 2014 05:52 pm • Last Updated Apr 25 2014 05:52 pm

In the late ’60s, my Girl Scout troop took a field trip to The Salt Lake Tribune building on Main Street, wandering around the grimy press room and the even grimier newsroom before ending up on "the Fourth Floor." There, Publisher Jack Gallivan presented us with snacks and his vision of the media future. Before long, he promised, we would get our newspaper … from the television!

It was also in the late ’60s that Gallivan lobbied for passage of the Newspaper Preservation Act, testifying that "The Tribune and the Deseret News have been traditional balancing factors in our particular society for nearly a century and it seems obvious that the public interest is best served when they continue to be." The Act, which Congress passed in 1970, granted a limited exemption to antitrust law and allowed the rival newspapers to continue their merged production operations as long as their newsrooms remained separate.

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Thus, Gallivan and other Tribune leaders envisioned a long-term future for the newspaper that bypassed giant press runs and instead delivered the product electronically to the home. But in the short term a "Joint Operating Agreement" with the Deseret News would increase print production efficiencies to allow both newspapers to continue publishing profitably on newsprint.

I thought back to those concurrent events last week when the Deseret News finally broke its six-month-long silence about the papers’ new Joint Operating Agreement, which reduces The Tribune’s revenues by 48 percent and threatens its future. The new agreement also gives the News production control of the Trib, which is now owned by a New York hedge fund, and which cannot be sold without the News’ blessing.

I found issue with much in the Deseret News’ "Clarification" to KUER’s RadioWest, but point No. 4 especially grated: "The future of news media is moving to digital formats, where consumer choices continue to expand. … It is the responsibility of news organizations to innovate and adapt to the evolving media landscape."

True enough. But it was grating to see The Tribune lectured on innovation in the "evolving media landscape" when The Tribune helped form that landscape as a founding investor in a giant cable company that would become part of AT&T. It was grating to see The Tribune lectured on adapting to a new digital future when the Deseret News had just inked a deal that would make such adaptation all but impossible.

Though declining, the print advertising revenues of The Tribune must be husbanded to finance the newspaper’s essential, and expensive, newsgathering. Because print revenues still account for more than 80 percent of U.S. newspapers’ income, they must be husbanded to finance the transition to a new digital model. The new Joint Operating Agreement presents a double threat to The Tribune: No revenue to finance the paper’s news production today on print; no revenue to invest in news production tomorrow digitally.

On point No. 3 of the Clarification, the Deseret News offered assurance that "Both Parties Acted in Good Faith" when the Joint Operating Agreement was revamped. I have no doubt the negotiations with the New York hedge fund were cordial: the Deseret News acquired enormous control over its competitor — still Utah’s dominant daily — and Trib owner Alden Global Capital was paid for the future profits of a paper it almost certainly will not own in the future. The parties exhibited good faith toward each other at the negotiating table, but bad faith toward our Tribune, its employees, readers, advertisers – indeed, the entire community, given a newspaper’s essential role in the democratic process.

Jack Gallivan and the McCarthey family that historically owned The Tribune envisioned our wired world a half-century ago. They expected newspapers would easily find their place within it. That was perhaps naïve, but not as naïve as entering into a Joint Operating Agreement with the Deseret News.

Former Tribune journalist Joan O’Brien and the Utah Newspaper Project are asking the U.S. Justice Department to challenge the 2013 Joint Operating Agreement with the Deseret News. Her father, Jerry O’Brien, was Tribune publisher from 1983 to 1994.

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