This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Several years ago, I wrote a letter of recommendation for a Salt Lake Tribune staffer applying for admission to the University of Utah law school. One of my lines was: Journalism's loss will be the law's gain.
That reporter was Joan O'Brien, and now, 16 years later, I must amend that sentiment.
During the past three years, O'Brien has deployed her legal expertise in the service of journalism, more specifically in her selfless, tireless and sometimes thankless campaign to save The Salt Lake Tribune, and keep it as Utah's informational watchdog and investigative beacon.
In October 2013, it became known through dogged reporting by Tribune reporters that the newspaper's then-owners, a New York hedge fund with myopic profit motives, had sold half the paper's future revenue to our competitor, the Deseret News, for a quick windfall of many millions. The new business arrangement was preceded by a large layoff of Tribune journalists, soon followed by more reductions in newsroom staff and print space.
Like many Utahns, O'Brien was outraged by the turn in Tribune fortunes. So she did something about it. She immersed herself in the legal maze known as the joint-operating agreement that defines the business relationship between Salt Lake City's two dailies. She became an expert in the Newspaper Preservation Act, the federal law that provides an antitrust exemption to competing newspapers so that places like Utah's capital can benefit from multiple news sources.
She spent weeks in the federal court clerk's office combing through documents and testimony from earlier legal conflicts involving the two papers, including the period leading up to 2000, when Deseret News managers had concrete plans to take ownership of The Tribune.
Tribune ink runs through O'Brien's veins she was a tenacious reporter and editor, and the daughter of the late Tribune Publisher Jerry O'Brien. Her husband, Tom Harvey, is a Tribune reporter.
She formed a nonprofit Citizens for Two Voices to raise money, undoubtedly much of it her own, to hire a legal team to fight the 2013 revisions to the JOA and, later, file a federal lawsuit. About the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation of the same issues.
It is no exaggeration to say that Citizens for Two Voices deserves at least some credit for the quality of journalism provided in the past three years in The Tribune and on sltrib.com. Without the group's vocal, and legal, pressure and that of the Justice Department the newsroom would have faced even more demands for deeper, intolerable cuts.
This past week, the sale of The Tribune to Utah businessman Paul Huntsman became final. We have a new owner and publisher. We have an amended business agreement with the Deseret News to help ensure financial viability. We have a future. Citizens for Two Voices has dropped its lawsuit; the Justice Department investigation is closed.
In a letter to readers, Huntsman wrote: "The Tribune is to Utah what the First Amendment is to the Constitution: a legacy guarantee of independent and, at times, adversarial thought."
Needless to say, we here in the newsroom received a jolt of optimism and affirmation that we have important, exciting work ahead of us.
After the turmoil of these past three years, that there remains a fine news operation for Huntsman to lead is a credit to many people:
To the reporters, photographers and editors in this newsroom who did their jobs every day to serve readers and the public at large. They produced important, engaging journalism that enhanced The Tribune's reputation as Utah's indispensable source for news and opinion.
To our readers who stuck with us and showed a loyalty that makes an editor tear up just writing about it.
To Joan O'Brien and her cohorts at Citizens for Two Voices, people like former Tribune editorial page editor Harry Fuller and reporter Patty Henetz, and Tribune friends Ted McDonough and Janet Goldstein.
So, if I could rewrite that letter of recommendation, I would say: Journalism's loss is the law's gain, but great journalism needs great legal minds to fight the battle.
And I would add: Thanks, Joan.
Terry Orme is The Tribune's editor. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.