SALT LAKE CITY — The conflict between current and former staff members of the Salt Lake Tribune and its New York-based owner spilled into downtown Salt Lake City Saturday as an estimated crowd of between 200 and 250 people attended a rally to "Save the Salt Lake Tribune."
Sen. Jim Dabakis spoke at the rally at the Salt Lake City-County Building and like others present, placed the focus on the competing Deseret News, owned by the LDS Church and for decades a partner with the Tribune in a joint operating agreement that shares advertising revenues while keeping the papers' editorial voices separate.
The joint operating agreement was renegotiated between the Deseret News and Tribune owners last fall. The Tribune's parent company, Denver-based MediaNews Group, is managed by Digital First Media and owned by Alden Global Capital, a New York hedge fund.
"We have two standards here. One is a reptile-like New York hedge fund that cares only about money and the other is the Deseret News, which is held to a much higher standard, as well it should be," Dabakis said, in criticizing both parties' motives in renegotiating the deal.
But Dabakis' criticism of the amended agreement runs counter to the response given by the Tribune's owner in the fall, which said the terms included the sale of printing presses and real estate by the owners of the Tribune to the Deseret News in line with the company's digital-minded strategy.
"We are very pleased with this initiative," John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, said in October. "It is consistent with our strategy at Digital First Media of focusing on our core competencies of content and sales and is an important step in ensuring the multi-platform future of the Salt Lake Tribune."
Dabakis said he took up the fight for the Tribune because he wants to see two strong independent voices in Utah and fears the deal, which makes the Deseret News the dominant partner, could hurt the viability of the Tribune.
"I wake up in the middle of the night with night sweats imagining that the only paper we have every single morning is the Deseret News. That is not good," Dabakis said to the vocal, energetic crowd Saturday. But he then added: "I would have a rally if somebody tried to close the Deseret News. I would be here saying, 'We need at least two voices. We need to hear from everybody.'"
Deseret News Editor Paul Edwards said the amendments to the joint operating agreement implemented protections that preserve the independence of both newsrooms, offers protections about the frequency of publication and promotion and allows the Tribune to use the printing presses free of charge.
"The joint operating agreement as amended provides a huge financial benefit to our partners at the Salt Lake Tribune by giving them rent-free access to the plant and the presses," Edwards said.
He reiterated that the Deseret News values the importance of strong journalism from both organizations in Utah.
"The Deseret News is committed to multiple editorial voices in this market," Edwards said. "It's demanded by customers and readers in this market and the new amendments to the joint operating agreement with us and the Salt Lake Tribune preserve that commitment. They actually reflect that commitment."
Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme attended Saturday's rally and said it was nice to see the community support for the publication. He said the renegotiated agreement will hurt the Tribune's revenue, the bulk of which, he said, still comes from the print product, but he does not believe the paper's demise is imminent.
"I think there's some hyperbole in that, there's some exaggeration there," Orme said, adding, "I'm personally optimistic that things are going to be OK. I support the Department of Justice looking at the (agreement) at the same time."
He said the newspaper is owned by a hedge fund that may not have an interest in staying with a business for the long-term and that there are some rumors that Alden Global Capital is looking to sell some of the newspapers it owns.
"I personally would like it if that were to happen — and I can't say if it will happen," Orme said. "If that were to happen, I would like to see a local owner emerge and someone who is committed to the long-term, who is committed to weathering the ups and downs of the newspaper industry right now."
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