SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Attorney General's Office announced Saturday that it has opened an investigation into the recently renegotiated joint operating agreement between the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News.
"I believe in the value of diverse editorial viewpoints and independent news-gathering for an informed citizenry, and I asked our antitrust lawyers to investigate the circumstances surrounding the change to the Joint Operating Agreement," Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a news release issued Saturday.
The release from the Attorney General's Office clarified that an investigation does not indicate wrongdoing and is simply a tool that can validate proper conduct or highlight poor conduct.
"We are not trying to duplicate or interfere with the DOJ investigation as it pertains to any area where they have statutory jurisdiction. But, there may be areas of concern outside of or concurrent with that scope, and we have an obligation to look at them more closely."
The announcement brought a strong response from Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News, Saturday:
“It is unfortunate that so much misinformation and hyperbole have been shared about the amended joint operating agreement between the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune. As yet, we have not had so much as a simple fact-finding inquiry from the Utah Attorney General’s Office," Edwards said.
"We are confident that as the attorney general examines the facts more closely, he will recognize that all parties entered into this agreement in good faith. The new agreement preserves our commitment to multiple editorial voices and expands protections for both papers.”
The decades-old joint operating agreement between Salt Lake City's two daily newspapers was renegotiated in October 2013 at the Tribune’s request and made the Deseret News the majority partner in exchange for other concessions, including the multi-million dollar sale of real estate and printing presses to the Deseret News, and guarantees about the independence of both papers.
The joint operating agreement has been renegotiated more than four times since its inception in 1952 and addendums have been added as the business interests of both parties have changed and evolved.
Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme declined to comment on the Utah Attorney General's involvement Saturday.
The joint operating agreement is subject to review by the U.S. Department of Justice, and both the Tribune and the Deseret News submitted documents to the Department of Justice after the changes to allow for that review. The Utah Attorney General's Office announced its look into the deal will be handled by the Markets and Financial Fraud Division.
That divisions' director, David Sonnenreich, said that the U.S. Attorney General has the authority to approve joint operating agreements, "but the state still has an independent interest in investigating and enforcing our antitrust laws outside of the scope of that federal review."
The original joint operating agreement between the newspapers makes the News and Tribune partners that share advertising revenues while keeping the papers' editorial voices separate.
Last year, after being approached by the Tribune's New York-based owner, Alden Global Capital, the deal was renegotiated.
John Paton, CEO at Digital First Media — which is owned by Alden Global Capital and owns Kearns-Tribune and the Salt Lake Tribune — said in October that the amended joint operating agreement was an extension of the company's changing strategy.
"We are very pleased with this initiative," Paton said at the time. "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."
Officials at the Deseret News have reiterated that they are committed to the demand for two distinct, independent editorial voices.
Several former employees have banded together to form groups in support of the Tribune. One of those groups, the Utah Newspaper Project — which describes itself as an organization committed to preserving the existence of two newspapers in the Salt Lake Valley — filed a lawsuit against the Deseret News and Tribune owner Kearns-Tribune in U.S. District Court earlier this week seeking to end the deal.
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