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Utah businessman and philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr. confirmed Friday that he is interested in buying The Salt Lake Tribune, saying the newspaper's independent editorial voice remains crucial to the state.
But the U.S. Department of Justice has halted all talks regarding a potential sale, Huntsman said, while federal lawyers scrutinize disputed changes to a business pact between The Tribune and its rival daily, the LDS Church-owned Deseret News.
Word of Huntsman's involvement comes as the Salt Lake County Council debates wading into the widening controversy about the newspapers' business operations. The council could vote as soon as Tuesday whether to send a formal letter urging DOJ lawyers to intervene in the revised News-Tribune joint-operating agreement.
More than 15,770 people have signed a petition urging the feds to overturn that new pact amid claims that it threatens to put The Tribune out of business and potentially leave the News as the Salt Lake Valley's lone daily.
The possibility of the state's news being dominated by "a church-owned or a politically owned or any other special-interest owned newspaper, is not in the best interest of the people of the state of Utah," Huntsman said Friday afternoon. "We should never have any political or religious organization filter our news.
"Those are my own personal feelings, even though I'm a strong member of the LDS Church," the 76-year-old industrialist said after groundbreaking ceremonies for a $105 million research wing at the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute.
"I've always had great respect for the fact that this valley should never be divided, that is to say, we should always have at least two newspapers," Huntsman said. "And I would work diligently to see that the valley is never divided, that the state's never divided and that the people have an equal voice for all faiths and all backgrounds and all religions."
To further that aim, Huntsman joined forces with then-Mayor Rocky Anderson more than decade ago to form the Alliance for Unity, bringing together community leaders from many faiths, ethnic groups and civic organizations.
Huntsman said he had expressed interest in buying The Tribune in that light. But, he said, federal antitrust lawyers have "put a clamp on anyone negotiating for it" for "six weeks or so" while they examine the joint-operating agreement.
The recently revised JOA, among other changes, gives 70 percent of the papers' combined profits to the News. Previously, The Tribune got 58 percent of that money.
In exchange, the News made a substantial payment to Alden Capital Group, the New York-based hedge fund that owns The Tribune and scores of other major U.S. newspapers. Negotiated by top leaders at the News and executives at Digital First Media, which runs Alden's newspapers, the rejiggered JOA was forged without the knowledge of The Tribune's senior managers in Salt Lake City.
The County Council, meanwhile, is expected to decide Tuesday whether to write a letter urging the DOJ to reject the new profit split, which one council member said put The Tribune at a disadvantage "to the point where it can't function as a newspaper."
Councilman Jim Bradley suggested last week the county send a letter that was "not incendiary" but that said the council "believes it's in the best interests of our citizens to have a vibrant Salt Lake Tribune continue to cover our actions and report on our deliberations."
He said The Tribune is the only news media organization that regularly covers council meetings. "Other than reading our minutes online,'' Bradley asked, "what other means is there of telling the public what we're doing?"
Losing The Tribune, Councilman Randy Horiuchi warned, "will hurt us. It will hurt our ability, our opportunities to do good public policy. We do [good public policy], because we have scrutiny. If that scrutiny goes away, it has major ramifications."
Even so, several council members expressed reservations about a government body delving into a dispute between private parties.
"I would send a letter saying how good it is to have two papers," Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said, "but we can't get into the private" business matters.
Tribune reporters Kirsten Stewart and Mike Gorrell contributed to this report.