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A 2014 business deal designed to turn The Salt Lake Tribune's treasure trove of vintage Utah news photographs into a digital library has soured, prompting the state's largest daily and other U.S. newspapers to file a lawsuit Friday in hopes of recovering decades of historic images.
The Tribune is one of scores of newspapers, banks, business associates and collectors entangled in the legal and financial troubles of an Arkansas photo archivist and sports memorabilia dealer.
North Little Rock businessman John Rogers, once a rising mogul of million-dollar baseball cards, iconic photos and other collectibles, is now mired in bankruptcy proceedings, lawsuits, fraud accusations and an FBI probe.
The Tribune's corporate parent, New York-based Digital First Media, filed the suit in Arkansas late Friday. It claims Rogers; his ex-wife, Angelica; and their company, Rogers Photo Archive, convinced seven DFM newspapers including The Tribune and The Denver Post to hand over their images with promises they would be scanned, cataloged and given back in digital form and that Rogers would share profits from photo sales through websites he pledged to develop.
Rogers not only failed to deliver digital archives, Web development and other services, in violation of signed contracts, the suit alleges, but also knew all along his business model was not viable. The couple's actual intention, the newspapers assert, was to "personally plunder and deplete" the archives for their benefit.
Thirteen other DFM newspapers gave their photo repositories to Rogers without signing a contract.
Friday's filing, in Pulaski County Circuit Court in Arkansas, demands the return of all photos, negatives, slides, contact sheets, clip files and other collectible materials such as vintage maps, postcards, handbills, posters and other materials some of which date to the 1800s. It also seeks an unspecified sum for financial damages.
In addition, the suit aims to extract the newspaper archives from Rogers' ongoing bankruptcy as a court-appointed receiver seeks to sell his remaining assets to satisfy creditors.
As of now, tens of thousands of historic Tribune photos, negatives and annotated news clippings amassed during at least 70 years of daily publishing are thought to be parked in an Illinois warehouse while Judge Chris Piazza in Little Rock sorts through mounting claims against Rogers.
"We are one of the keepers of history of this state," Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme said, "and there is a great deal at stake here."
The phone number for Rogers Photo Archives was disconnected. A Friday call to his Little Rock attorney, Blake Hendrix, was not returned.
John Jewell, attorney for DFM, declined to comment.
A grass-roots Utah group currently suing The Tribune and Deseret News over recent changes to their joint-operating agreement pointed to the archives dispute as another example of poor stewardship by DFM.
"If these images are gone forever, the loss is to our entire community," said Joan O'Brien, a former Tribune employee and head of Citizens for Two Voices.
"We have argued The Tribune's owners mortgaged the newspaper's future through that JOA with the Deseret News," she said. "Perhaps this sad incident shows that the newspaper's past has been mortgaged as well."
Orme said that DFM managers suggested, but did not mandate, The Tribune sign the contract with Rogers.
Court documents and news coverage in Arkansas indicate Rogers also acquired the full archives of non-DFM newspapers such as the Seattle Times, Boston Herald, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and major papers in Australia and New Zealand.
Orme signed The Tribune's contract with Rogers on Feb. 12, 2014. The newspaper, he said, sought a fully indexed digital database as a valuable tool to supply readers with timely and compelling photo coverage.
On April 11, 2014, a freight truck pulled up to The Tribune's downtown Salt Lake City offices, and workers hauled away the collection.
Longtime Tribune newsroom archivist Ana Daraban estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 indexed paper folders, each stuffed with photo prints and clippings, left the building that day, along with some 200 boxes of negatives.
Friday's filing claims some photos from The Tribune and other papers were secretly given to third parties and sold on eBay and other auction sites, in some instances, selling prints for which no negative survives, "making the photos one-of-a-kind items."
The suit accuses Rogers of using other archives as collateral for million-dollar loans, both in violation of written agreements.
As Rogers' financial affairs are being examined, Judge Piazza is considering a bid from an Atlanta-based company, Red Alert Media Matrix, to buy Rogers' assets. The firm is offering $18 million in cash and 1 billion shares of Red Alert Media stock.
At the same time, a large share of The Tribune's photographic legacy is in safe hands.
About 60,000 of its photos and negatives from about 1930 to 1970 are at the Utah Historical Society, courtesy of a 1982 gift by then-Editor Will Fehr. The society also retains other Tribune images drawn from that same time period, donated by two longtime staff photographers: the late Ray King, who is believed to have retired in 1939, and Tim Kelly, who left the paper in 1998 and died in January.
The newspaper also retains its own digital archive of images shot from the mid-1990s forward.
Some of the affected papers
In addition to The Salt Lake Tribune, other newspapers affected by an Arkansas lawsuit filed Friday over vintage news photo archives include:
El Paso Times, Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Denver Post, St. Paul Pioneer Press, New Haven Register and Los Angeles Daily News.