Does the Deseret News Really Have ‘Veto Power’ Over the Tribune?

A column I wrote last Friday about the financial troubles at The Salt Lake Tribune has received a number of comments and emails.


That’s good.

The survival of the Trib is important to our community, and deserves public debate.

However, one reader took me to task for not mentioning that under the new Joint Operating Agreement, announced last October, the Trib owners, a New York City hedge fund, and the Deseret News owners, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, included a clause whereby the church can have veto power over who the Trib may be sold to, if it comes to that.

That clause is seen by more than a few pro-Trib supporters as a pathway for the church to “squeeze” the Tribune and perhaps push it to failure.

But the writer of that comment misunderstands the history of the two papers, and the intent of the clause.

I can’t speak too much about the original Joint Operating Agreement reached in 1952 between the church and the families that owned the Tribune since the early 1900s.

But I can say something about the renewed JOA of 1982 (each agreement was to last 30 years). I have not read the 1982 agreement, but I have spoken at length over time with some who have read the contract – and I believe they understand it.

It was the 1982 agreement that included a clause that allowed BOTH the Tribune and the Deseret News the power of approval if the opposing party sought to sell their interest in their newspaper.

The idea was simple enough: LDS Church leaders didn’t want to be forced into a partnership with a group they didn’t want to do business with, and the same protection was there for the Tribune owners.

In other words, the veto selling power went both ways, to both owners.

There is irony today that some Trib supporters are accusing the LDS Church of trying to “kill” the larger-circulation morning paper.

That’s because, in some DN bosses’ minds, it was former Tribune owners who ignored that approval-in-selling clause some time ago.

Back in the late 1990s the then-Trib owners “sold” their newspaper to TCI, the old, large cable TV company.

The Tribune controlling family members made hundreds of millions of dollars on the deal.

DN bosses believed that sale technically violated the JOA – for the Trib owners never asked, nor even told, their newspapering partners about the “sale.”

It was just announced in the Tribune.

(The Tribune owners claimed it was not really a sale, but a trade of stock between the Tribune and TCI.)

In any case, when TCI was sold several years later to the telecommunications giant AT&T, once again the DN owners were not consulted, and got no chance to “approve” of the Tribune’s sale.

Tired of being shunted aside – and their contractual sale-approval power ignored – when AT&T executives looked to sell the Tribune in the 2000s to Dean Singleton’s MediaNews, the DN bosses did get involved.

Singleton came to Salt Lake City, met with church leaders, and won their approval.

It is not today, nor has it ever been, a “conspiracy” by LDS Church leaders to harm the Tribune by having a say in to whom the Tribune can be sold.

It is a reciprocal power placed in the 1982 JOA as a protection to the owners of both newspapers.

If not in the original 1952 JOA contract, it certainly was in the 1982 renewal, and it is not something new placed in last October’s JOA reworking – which, admittedly, otherwise gave the Deseret News much greater financial and business advantage over the Tribune.

I suppose it is natural that when one is not a member of a predominantly powerful group in society – in this case, the LDS Church – and something happens that appears to benefit that powerful group, then conspiracies abound.

But as I understand it, the authority in the 1982 JOA concerning each newspaper owner’s right to approve the sale of the opposing entity’s publication was included as a protection to both sides.

And it is more than a bit odd that it is supporters of the group that violated that protection twice to now cry foul.