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While more than half of Utah's voters haven't heard much if anything about an ongoing fight over Salt Lake City's daily newspapers, a sizable majority favor having two papers covering the state instead of one, a new poll shows.
Readership loyalties and preferences are evenly split between The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, although 48 percent say they don't read either paper, according to the Brigham Young University survey.
More than 8 in 10 (81 percent) agree that the region "needs two daily newspapers." But if Utah could have only one daily, 51 percent of poll respondents statewide would prefer it to be the News. Forty percent would rather have The Tribune be the lone daily print voice.
The numbers come from a BYU survey conducted in mid-October of 733 recent voters, recruited in exit polling during the past five general elections.
Researchers with the LDS Church-owned school's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy say the poll published Monday has a 3.4 percent margin of error.
Centered on political races leading up to the Nov. 4 Election Day, the BYU survey includes several questions related to a year-old dispute over business dealings between The Tribune and News.
The papers' joint-operating agreement is the target of two government probes and a federal lawsuit, stemming from revisions made a year ago to the partnership that shifted power and profit-sharing decidedly in favor of the News.
Some former Tribune employees, advertisers and community members have sued to undo the revised agreement. They have accused managers at the LDS Church-owned News and executives for Alden Global Capital, the New York hedge fund that owns The Tribune, of secretly crafting a deal that ultimately could put The Tribune out of business.
Top managers at both the News and Digital First Media, which runs The Tribune and scores of other daily newspapers for Alden, have denied any such intention. Instead, both sets of senior managers maintain they also support two newspapers and insist changes in their joint operations are meant to move The Tribune toward a more digital-focused future.
Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme said he agreed with the poll's sentiments in support of multiple and diverse newspaper voices in Utah.
"I would go even further and say Ogden, Provo, St. George and other cities need newspapers," Orme said. "Citizens and readers understand the value of competition and how that makes for a stronger press overall."
Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of the Deseret News, said those same views are held by his newspaper's leaders.
"The Deseret News totally agrees," said Gilbert, who, along with John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, negotiated the retooled Tribune-News business pact. "To that end, we have included provisions in the revised operating agreement protecting the independence of The Salt Lake Tribune and providing free use of the printing presses."
More than half (55 percent) of poll respondents say they have heard "very little" or "nothing" about the operating agreement. Forty-five percent have either heard "some" or "a lot" about it.
Antitrust lawyers with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Utah attorney general's office are investigating the revamped newspaper deal. But barely a third of respondents (35 percent) believe the DOJ should be conducting such an inquiry.
Here are some other poll findings on Salt Lake City's two dailies:
• More than quarter (27 percent) of respondents single out The Tribune as performing a watchdog role in Utah affairs, compared with 5 percent for the News. More than a third (35 percent) say both papers are watchdogs and about the same number (33 percent) report neither paper filling that duty.
• Most respondents see both papers as "biased" in one way or another. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) view the News as biased, while 21 percent say the same about The Tribune. The bulk of those surveyed (41 percent) see bias in both dailies, and 14 percent see it in neither.
• Forty-one percent agree The Tribune is more likely to represent their point of view, compared with 59 percent who disagree.
• Fewer respondents trust The Tribune to report fairly on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, compared with the News. About 30 percent say both dailies treat Mormonism fairly. But barely 1 in 10 (12 percent) single out The Tribune in saying it "reports fairly" on Utah's predominant faith as opposed to 44 percent who do so for the News.
• Nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) see The Tribune as a "liberal" newspaper. Only 1 percent to 5 percent view the News that way.