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An outspoken state senator and a former top Salt Lake Tribune editor are adding their voices to those warning that a recent business deal may have fatally weakened Utah's largest newspaper.
As of Monday, more than 3,700 people had signed a Save The Tribune online petition circulated by state Sen. Jim Dabakis. His Web campaign calls a reworked partnership contract between The Tribune's New York-based corporate owners and the Deseret News "diabolical" and alleges the pact is designed to eventually force The Tribune to close.
"It's dawning on the community that the Trib is going to disappear," the Salt Lake City Democrat said Monday. "We need to stop talking like there's some doubt about it. There will be no Salt Lake Tribune."
The former Utah Democratic Party chairman is even more blunt on his site, savethetribune.com, which seeks support for U.S. government intervention in the dispute and features a disturbing picture of a blood-spattered Tribune front page next to a soaked knife labeled Deseret News.
"Without the community's help signing this petition, The Tribune will likely be dead in months," the site states. "This will not be a fair marketplace death. It will be murder. The perp is the Deseret News, their bloody hands standing over the gasping Tribune."
At issue are recent changes to the 62-year-old operating partnership between the two Salt Lake City newspapers that nearly halved The Tribune's portion of profits from the deal and sold its share in printing facilities in West Valley City to the LDS Church-owned News. The Tribune's owner, hedge-fund-backed Digital First Media, received a substantial cash payment as part of the new deal, which lowered The Tribune's profit stake from 58 percent to 30 percent, with the other 70 percent now going to the News.
The new agreement, which took effect in January, is under antitrust scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Whatever the motivation was, the reality is that the new revenue split of 70-30 more than handicaps The Salt Lake Tribune," Conway said. "It almost certainly lays the way to its demise.
"It is hard to see what has happened as anything other than a sellout," added Conway, who took over as Tribune editor in 2003 and ran the paper for a decade.
Conway, who lives in Holladay, said she was not included in talks that led to the new joint-operating agreement (JOA).
News CEO Clark Gilbert said in a statement last week that Digital First Media which runs 75 daily U.S. newspapers including The Tribune on behalf of hedge fund Alden Global Capital initiated discussions altering the newspaper partnership.
Gilbert did not respond to a request Monday for additional comment.
"When I resigned," Conway said, "I didn't know this was happening. Who would have believed it would be 70-30? That's just unbelievable."
Digital First CEO John Paton declined to comment for this story. In the past, Paton has championed the new JOA, characterizing it as part of a company strategy to shift resources away from print and toward reaching digital audiences.
But Conway said the revised JOA jeopardized The Tribune by forcing it to give up revenue from print advertising prematurely.
"It amounts to killing print before we need to do that rather than letting it die a gentle death,'' she said. "Digital has not lived up to its expectations. At this point, it does not provide news organizations with the resources they need."
A community group, led by former Tribune staffer Joan O'Brien, has made similar arguments in urging the Justice Department to halt the new JOA in the months since the pact was announced in October.
Through letters to Justice lawyers and its utahnewspaperproject.org website, the Utah group also has warned the newspaper deal threatens to end The Tribune's role as a watchdog in Utah and increase media power wielded by the state's dominant institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
O'Brien, daughter of the late Tribune Publisher Jerry O'Brien and the wife of a Tribune reporter, said that while she appreciated Dabakis' support, "we're not formally affiliated with him."