What Does the Future Hold for Salt Lake City's Newspapers?

Written by Bryan Schott on . Posted in Today At Utah Policy

“Absolutely no interest.” That’s the statement from the McCarthey family when asked about rumors they were in the market to re-acquire the Salt Lake Tribune.

 

Speculation started building last week when the Salt Lake Tribune announced they were altering their joint operating agreement with the Deseret News. The armchair quarterbacking makes sense, since the McCarthey family owned the paper until they sold it to TCI in the late 90’s.

The change to the JOA means the Tribune is only getting 30% of the profits from the two newspaper’s print versions, which is substantially less than the 58% they previously were entitled to.

Alan Mutter, former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times who now runs a popular blog about the newspaper business, tells Utah Policy most of the other joint operating agreements in the country have been shut down, with the weaker partner either just giving up or getting bought out.

“The people who own the Tribune want to get out of the printing business. It’s a unique situation in Salt Lake City where the Deseret News wants to own the printing press and they’re happy to take on the Tribune as a customer.”

That hasn’t always been the case with JOA’s that fell apart. Mutter brings up two prominent examples. The Miami News, which had a JOA with the Miami Herald, folded in 1988. And The Rocky Mountain News, which shared a JOA with the Denver Post, ceased publishing in 2009.

In turned out to be a good decision for the Miami News, according to Mutter. Their owners are still getting checks from the Miami Herald 25 years later.

“The Miami News went out of business and the owners of the Miami Herald have been paying them since that because they make more money,” says Mutter. “The Rocky Mountain News was losing $14 million a year, and it made more sense for them to just close the doors.”

However, it’s not time to push the panic button on Utah journalism just yet. Mutter says altering the JOA in Salt Lake doesn’t mean either paper is going to go away anytime soon.

“What’s happening in Salt Lake is awful and traumatic for individuals and the community. Some papers are experimenting with publishing only a few days a week. Others are looking at no paper at all...going all digital. What’s the endgame here? I don’t know.”

However, Mutter does say one ominous thing about the hardships facing the newspaper industry.

“I’ve never heard of a business that shrank itself to success.”