Bob Bernick’s Notebook: It’s All About Money

It is with hesitation, and more than a bit of sadness, that I write this column about the troubles of The Salt Lake Tribune.


First, some personal history.

The Bernicks – Robert Sr. And Betty – moved to Salt Lake City in 1948 when my father got a job with the evening Salt Lake Telegram, the paper started by the Tribune as a direct evening competitor to the Deseret News.

The 1952 Joint Operating Agreement that combined the printing and advertising of the Tribune Corp. with the Deseret News gave the Telegram to the DN.

And for a while the masthead of the Deseret News read Deseret News and Telegram.

After the JOA started, my father went to work for the morning Tribune, quickly rising to be the business editor, where he wrote a daily column. (You find almost no one who writes a daily column, seven times a week, for any newspaper today.)

He left in the early 1960s to become a local banker – his growing family found it too hard to make it on a newspaperman’s salary.

I only read the Tribune in my home. I knew there was a DN, but I actually never even saw it until I majored in journalism at the U. of U., worked for the Daily Utah Chronicle and saw the DN in its offices.

In 1972 I worked as a copy boy for the Tribune for around six months, a very eye-opening experience – lots of cigarette smoke and drinking in the Trib City Room, often at the same time.

In any case, believe it or not, by the late 1970s the DN was a better journalistic product than the Tribune. Yes, that is just my opinion, but I stand by it.

I got a job as the DN city desk secretary in late 1976 and worked my way through several reporting jobs to become political editor in 1986, where I stayed until May of 2010, when I took early retirement instead of being shifted to a new reporting job by the then editors.

LaVarr Webb, who was a mentor at the DN, took pity on me, and hired me part-time to write for his UtahPolicy.

I give this history to show that I’ve been close to Utah newspapering for nearly all my life, first through my father, then myself.

And the troubles these days at The Salt Lake Tribune are not new to the industry in the U.S.

But they are unique in that Utah is such a different state and society – dominated by the Mormon culture and LDS Church.

For more than 100 years to own a newspaper in America was almost a license to print money.

If you owned the major newspaper in town, especially if you owned the ONLY newspaper in town, you set the advertising rates, you set the subscription rates, and if you watched both carefully and were a decent businessman, you made boatloads of cash.

Some of the great American personal fortunes were made by newspapering families.

And like other places, the Tribune was owned by a family.

And like other places, as that family grew in numbers from one generation to another, there were greater demands on profits, more mouths to feed.

I recall sitting at my desk one day when the then-editor/publisher of the DN walked by on his way to a Newspaper Agency Corp., board meeting (the NAC was the name of the JOA business).

There were four members on the board, two from the DN, two from the Trib. But the Trib under the JOA agreement of 1982 was chair of NAC, and so broke all tie votes.

Thus, the Trib controlled the business fate of the DN, since it controlled the means of production (the presses) and profits (the advertising).

Anyway, the DN boss (as approved by the DN board) had agreed to what the NAC budget (and profits) would be for the upcoming year.

When the DN boss walked back through the DN City Room after the meeting, I asked how it had gone.

He was amazed.

He said that the family members owning the Trib had, out of the blue, demanded that the NAC make $1 million MORE in profits than originally agreed upon.

Seems the Trib families needed more money to feed the mouths of their family members.

“What could I do?” the DN boss said. “I can’t say we (at the DN) want to make less next year.”

Back then, the JOA contract said the DN got 42 percent of the NAC profits, the Trib 58 percent.

So, the DN made $420,000 more that coming year than it had agreed to in preliminary NAC budget negotiations.

(It probably made more than that, these were good times for the newspaper business in the U.S.)

It was all about money.

And today, it is still all about money.

I hope the Trib survives the next few years. But it will be an uphill battle.

The new JOA, renegotiated last October, sold all of the presses and other real estate owned by the Trib to the DN. The price paid by the DN owners, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is unknown publicly.

But the owners of the Trib decided to sell those properties.

They weren’t forced to do so by the DN. The Trib owners still controlled the votes on the NAC board.

It was a business deal – although perhaps a lousy one for the Tribune.

Worse for the Trib, the new JOA says that the News will get 70 percent of the printed papers’ profits, the Trib 30 percent. And the DN controls the votes, 3-2, on the NAC board.

The owners of the Trib, a New York City-based hedge fund which took over MediaNews when MediaNews couldn’t pay its bills and carried so much debt, clearly plans on taking all of their 80 newspaper properties totally digital.

The new JOA says the Trib gets all of its own website profits; the DN all of its website profits. And the fact that the digital profits are much lower than printed profits is just part of the hedge funds business plan.

The Trib hasn’t, it appears to me, been signaled out for more harsh treatment than any of the other 80 newspapers.

The San Jose Mercury News, once one of the great regional newspapers in America, one of the 80 newspapers, has also sold its means of printing and advertising.

In any case, in the immediate future the Trib has to survive on 30 percent of the print/advertising profits of the NAC, now called MediaOne.

The former owners of The Salt Lake Tribune, the families who milked profits to feed their own mouths, controlled the business fate of the DN for more than 30 years. (And steadfastly refused to let the DN go morning, as the old JOA allowed.)

The Trib family members made tens of millions of dollars when they sold the Trib back in the 1990s – with plans to rebuy it at a lower price later on – a move that didn’t work out.

In fact, Tribune staff pensions were based on the value of Trib stock, and when it was sold by the family members to TCI, and later to AT&T, long-time staffers literally became millionaires overnight.

I want the Trib to survive. I want it to continue being an “independent” voice in our community.

But if it doesn’t, it isn’t because LDS Church leaders tried to kill it.

It’s because of a radically-changing newspaper financial climate and former owners’, and current owners’, decisions to take as much money out of the Tribune as possible.

It was all about money before.

And it is all about money today.