News battle emerges in Utah

 

UTAH

Thanks to a petition to higher-ups from editorial staffers at the Salt Lake Tribune, a news story involving the paper itself reached the light of day.

In mid-October, the Wall Street Journal and other national newspapers picked up details of a struggle between the Tribune, an independent daily with about 135,000 readers, and the Deseret News, a daily half that size, owned by the Mormon Church. Salt Lake Tribune reporter Jim Woolf says that the petition, signed by over 100 employees, asked management to run a story about the newspaper dispute so that the public could be part of the dialogue. The competing papers have a joint operating agreement governing business and circulation, Woolf says, but it had become "a marriage on the rocks." Woolf says sending the petition to his bosses wasn't easy, but he's glad he did it.

"I think now everyone is glad we went public," he says.

At stake is control over the means of producing daily newspapers in Salt Lake City and, some say, the survival of a free press there. While the joint agreement gives the Tribune 58 percent of the income of the two papers and first crack at presses because of its stronger circulation, that arrangement would almost certainly change if the Deseret News called the shots.

Control of the Tribune unexpectedly came on the block when AT&T acquired a cable company, TCI Cable. TCI happened to own the Tribune and the corporation running the joint agreement between the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, and AT&T was eager to sell.

Ralph Wakely, a reporter for the Ogden Standard Examiner, explains that "TCI Cable was what AT&T wanted, but it was like they bought a car and opened up the trunk and found a newspaper."

If the Deseret News bought the Tribune, it would control access to the three presses that print the papers. That means the Deseret News could not only switch its publication from afternoons to mornings, but also delay and potentially weaken circulation of the Tribune by printing first.

Revelations that Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called AT&T on behalf of the Mormon Church only added backroom intrigue to the story. Hatch chairs the Senate committee that deals with antitrust matters, and many assume that an attempted church monopoly of news in Salt Lake would come before Hatch's committee.

To Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, the continuation of a strong Salt Lake Tribune is important because the public needs a "major independent voice in this community," he told the Ogden Standard Examiner. The Mormon Church also owns Utah's major television and radio stations.

Two-newspaper cities are increasingly rare in America. Salt Lake has had two dailies since 1870, when the Salt Lake Tribune began competing with the Mormon Church's Deseret News, founded in 1850. The Tribune, says Wakely, was founded in part to oppose the conservative agenda of the Mormon Church.

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