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The owner of The Salt Lake Tribune took another step into the digital news future Wednesday when John Paton was appointed CEO of Media-News Group.

He replaces William Dean Singleton, who announced in January that he would step down as CEO of the company he co-founded 29 years ago.

Singleton, 60, will remain chairman of MediaNews and publisher of The Tribune and The Denver Post. He will also continue as chairman of The Associated Press, a post Singleton has held since 2007.

Paton, 54, is CEO of Journal Register Co., a Yardley, Pa.-based media company that owns websites and print publications that provide news and information in 10 eastern and midwestern states.

Paton (pronouned pay-ton) will stay on as CEO of Journal Register, which he joined in February 2010. Although most Denver-based MediaNews papers are in the West, and Journal Register has papers in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Ohio, there are no current plans to merge the two companies, Singleton said.

MediaNews also entered into an agreement with Digital First Media, a new company led by Paton that will provide management services and lead the execution of MediaNews' digital and print strategies.

Singleton said he chose Paton, whom he has known for 23 years, to replace him because Paton "has a very clear vision of where our industry needs to go, moving forward in a digital world. Yet his feet are planted in the newspaper business and the values that are dear to us as newspeople."

Although the companies aren't merging, Singleton said the partnership with Journal Register "provides a vehicle for further consolidation of the newspaper industry, which I believe is critical to our long-term success."

"It provides a management structure that could add other newspapers or newspaper companies to it to create additional efficiencies and scale to compete in the national interactive world."

Under Paton's leadership, the Journal Register has been praised as a digital success story. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2009, but after embracing Paton's "digital first" strategy, it said it earned a profit last year of $41 million, before interest, taxes, depreciation and other items. Because Journal Register is privately held, it does not release its net profit publicly. It said it has doubled its digital audience in the past year, adding that digital revenue increased 70 percent in the first quarter.

The partnership announced Wednesday provides immediate cost savings and the ability to leverage the combined scale and expertise of MediaNews and Journal Register, the companies said, without elaborating.

"This allows these two great companies to accelerate our digital-first strategy of transitioning from what have largely been print-centric businesses to modern, multimedia platform companies focused on local news and advertising," Paton said in a statement.

Paton spoke to MediaNews employees in person and by telephone at a meeting in Denver. Although he didn't spell out his vision in detail, Paton told his audience that change was coming.

"Starting today, under Digital First Media, we have two companies that collectively serve 57 million Americans; 41 million of those are online, and our online news network is in the top five already. If you don't mind me bragging a bit, AOL, here we come," Paton said.

Journal Register was purchased by Alden Global Capital in July. The hedge fund is also a major stake in MediaNews, which it acquired after Affiliated Media, the holding company for MediaNews, exited bankruptcy in 2010. Alden also holds big chunks of the Freedom Communications newspaper chain, as well as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, Tribune Co., and the Canadian newspaper firm Postmedia Network. At one time or another, all have restructured through bankruptcy court, as the weak economy and the Internet undercut newspaper advertising and subscription revenue.

Paton's digital-first strategy has been centered on developing fresh and affordable methods for creating and distributing news and information on several different platforms, while cutting expenses at Journal Register newspapers.

Yet he has said that cutting newspaper resources to restore profits is short-sighted.

"The fact that our industry ... continues to plow on by slashing editorial, research, marketing and even sales resources to meet profit expectations is simply stupid," Paton wrote in June.

John Morton, a newspaper analyst in Maryland, said it isn't clear that digital strategies will succeed in turning around the newspaper industry.

"All newspapers believe that the future of newspapers has to be digital. But it's still very early in this process. We don't know how successful it is going to be," Morton said.

Twitter: @SLTribPaul