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A group of former Salt Lake Tribune employees has asked antitrust lawyers to block a new business agreement between The Tribune and its rival newspaper, the Deseret News, saying the deal's profit-sharing and management provisions endanger The Tribune's survival and threaten robust journalism in Utah.
Nearly 30 former employees and retirees signed a letter sent Monday to the U.S. Department of Justice, asking it to investigate modifications to the Tribune-News joint operating agreement (JOA). The Mormon church-owned Deseret News Publishing and New York-based Digital First Media, which manages The Tribune for corporate owner MediaNews Group, filed the revisions with the DOJ on Oct. 21.
According to the three-page letter, "The changes threaten to undermine an important journalistic voice in Utah's unique marketplace of ideas, represent an intolerable consolidation of news media ownership here and violate the spirit and letter of the Newspaper Preservation Act."
On Wednesday, the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also called for "a close examination" of the deal by the Justice Department.
The ACLU "is devoted to promoting freedom and diversity of speech," said Karen McCreary, executive director of ACLU of Utah. The DOJ's final decision needs to focus on whether the deal "will be a threat to diversity of expression and independence of editorial content, or result in a substantial lessening of competition."
Along with selling The Tribune's printing facilities and other real estate to the News, the revised JOA gives The News 70 percent of the profits generated jointly by the two papers to The Tribune's 30 percent, replacing a 58 percent share The Tribune had received for nearly six decades.
Digital First Chief Executive John Paton has called the deal "a triple win" because he believes it strengthens The Tribune's digital future, freeing the newspaper of unnecessary legacy costs from its print operation and generating cash to pay down debt.
Paton has emphasized the JOA revisions also include explicit protections of The Tribune's editorial voice, including full autonomy over its news and publishing operations.
Reached on Wednesday, he said he had read the former Tribune employees' letter on the Romenesko news industry blog, which published the letter Tuesday, but he declined to comment.
A DOJ official would not comment directly Wednesday on either the JOA or the letter, but said lawyers responsible for examining such newspaper partnerships often include public input in their review.
The Justice Department's antitrust division is responsible for ensuring such pacts do not inhibit free competition.
"We make our decisions based on what is before us, the facts and the law," said Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for the division.
In an interview, Joan O'Brien, a former Tribune editor who penned the letter, said she believes the new JOA makes the paper less profitable and therefore less attractive to a future buyer.
"It almost seems punitive" by weakening The Tribune, which has traditionally been Utah's strongest newspaper, said O'Brien, who is the daughter of the late Jerry O'Brien, a longtime Tribune publisher.
O'Brien also is married to current Tribune reporter Tom Harvey. Co-signee Nancy Hobbs, a former reporter, is the wife of current Tribune editor and publisher Terry Orme.
The JOA changes also give the News a three-to-two majority on the board of MediaOne of Utah, which oversees advertising, printing and distributions of the two newspapers. O'Brien said the shift in control was particularly worrisome, given ownership by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of the News as well as KSL, a major television and radio outlet in the Salt Lake area market.
"But this is not about religion," said O'Brien, who noted that many faithful LDS members support the notion of media independence in Utah. "This is about business. It is pro-free speech."
In exchange for the JOA revisions, Digital First received an undisclosed sum of cash and took control of a roughly 20-person sales and technical development staff for The Tribune's websites, including sltrib.com and utahsright.com, an open-records site.
Clark Gilbert, CEO of the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media, did not respond to a Wednesday email seeking comment.