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Negotiations by the Huntsman family to buy The Salt Lake Tribune are stalled.
Several highly placed sources with knowledge of the talks confirmed Friday that months of bargaining by Utah billionaire-philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman, The Tribune's top managers at Digital First Media (DFM) and executives over the Deseret News have broken down.
"They're not dead, but they're not ongoing," said one of the sources, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.
The impasse, these sources said, was primarily due to reticence by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a say in the talks through its ownership of the News, The Tribune's longstanding business partner.
Huntsman; Keith McMullin, head of Deseret Management Corp.; and William Kolasky, an attorney for DFM, The Tribune's New York-based owner, did not respond Friday to requests for comment on the development, which throws the future of Utah's largest newspaper into question.
Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme said he was "disappointed to learn this negotiation has apparently hit a wall."
"I've long felt that local ownership of The Tribune would be a good thing," he said, "and that local owners would understand and appreciate the unique and important role The Tribune plays in Utah."
Jon Huntsman Sr. publicly affirmed his interest in buying The Tribune in July 2014, saying its independent editorial voice was vital to Utah.
Huntsman is a prominent Mormon, a fact that observers had suggested improved his odds of acquiring the paper, given that the LDS Church, under terms of the newspapers' partnership, has a veto over who can own The Tribune.
Word of the impasse comes a little more than two weeks after a federal lawsuit over the partnership was put on a three-month hold, ostensibly to allow sales talks to progress.
The lead attorney in that litigation which was brought by a group of former Tribune employees and other community members called Citizens for Two Voices said news that negotiations had ceased was "obviously very concerning."
Salt Lake City lawyer Karra Porter said she had been notified earlier this week that the talks with Huntsman had collapsed.
Barring the revival of a potential sale, she added, "we would likely [go] back to court to ask that the lawsuit be put back on track."
Joan O'Brien, who heads Citizens for Two Voices, said her grass-roots group was "very disappointed by Mr. Huntsman's withdrawal because we like all Tribune readers are ready for the paper to find a benevolent, new, local owner."
O'Brien, daughter of the late Tribune Publisher Jerry O'Brien and wife of Tribune reporter Tom Harvey, said the development could prompt other would-be buyers to step forward.
Porter said Friday she was "facilitating discussions" with another prospective buyer who had expressed an interest in recent days, someone the attorney described as "local and well-known in the community." She declined to elaborate.
Porter said Citizens for Two Voices probably would wait to reactivate its lawsuit so the new bidder could have time to make a proposal.
The suit, filed in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court in June 2014, has been sidelined since July of this year.
The litigation seeks to undo a fall 2013 rewriting of a longstanding joint-operating agreement (JOA) between The Tribune and News, which Citizens for Two Voices says severely damaged The Tribune's finances.
Crafted by top officials at the News and DFM without the knowledge of local Tribune managers the revised pact cut The Tribune's profit split from the partnership in half and sold off its share of West Valley City printing facilities.
It gave the News governing control over the newspapers' shared print advertising and distribution.
The deal also involved a sizable cash payment by the News to DFM.
Orme and O'Brien called for the JOA to be renegotiated.
In their public comments about the matter, managers at DFM and the News have said the JOA changes were meant to position The Tribune for a future more focused on digital publishing instead of print.
The JOA changes also are the target of an investigation by antitrust lawyers with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Utah attorney general's office.
As per department policy, DOJ attorneys have declined to comment.