Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Sacred Cows

A lot of speculation this week that The Salt Lake Tribune could be sold, and the buyer could be billionaire/philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr.


In any troubled institution it is always nice to guess that some white knight will ride in and save the day.

I well remember back 15 years ago or so when staffers et al. at the Los Angeles Times were hoping that former publisher Otis Chandler would return to save the troubled family newspaper.

It didn’t happen.

And the Times suffered buy-outs, layoffs and internal scandals even BEFORE the newspaper industry was hit by a financial crisis in the late 2010s.

Now Tribune staffers and supporters are hoping that a “local” buyer for the newspaper can be found – and be dedicated enough to revive the newspaper financially.

Well, as they say, hope springs eternal.

But be careful for what you wish for – because you might just get that local buyer. But not the results you wish.

Some observations:

— A local buyer of the Trib would change ownership, yes. But it WOULD NOT change the October 2013 reworking of the joint operating agreement (JOA).

That reworking changed the profit split from MediaOne, the business entity of the JOA, from 58 percent of profits to the Tribune/42 percent of profits to the Deseret News to a 70/30 split in favor of the News.

In other words, since 1952 when the JOA was first started, the Tribune has received 58 percent of the printed newspapers’ profits, the Deseret News 48 percent.

Now the Deseret News gets 70 percent of the printed profits, the Tribune 30 percent.

The owner of the Tribune, Digital First Media (controlled by a New York hedge fund), has let it be known that it sees the future of its newspapers not in a printed form, but in an online digital form.

According, Digital First’s reworking of the October 2013 agreement says the Tribune keeps all of its online profits, the DN all of its online profits.

But online newspaper profits hover around 15 percent of total profits – with the printed advertising/subscriptions still making up the lion’s share of income.

Without reworking that October 2013 70/30 split, any new owner of the Tribune – at least in the short run – would still be faced with a significant reduction in income from a year ago.

— Even if a revered citizen like Huntsman Sr. were to buy the Tribune – and Huntsman Sr. has close ties to leaders of the LDS Church, the News’ owner – why would the Church rework the October 2013 JOA contract to the Tribune’s benefit?

I can’t see that LDS leaders would.

One must assume that the Church paid a lot of money to Digital First in order to get the new 70/30 split. (In that deal, Digital First also sold its share of the West Valley jointly-owned presses to the News, as well as other real estate left over from when the Church and Tribune split real assets after Dean Singleton and his MediaNews bought the Tribune in the late 1990s.)

The financial goal of all of the Church’s for-profit businesses – including Deseret Book, Deseret News and KSL-TV and radio – is to make money for the Church.

Thus providing assets for the ecumenical work of the LDS faith.

It is not the goal, nor the job, of the Church to help the Tribune survive financially. Just like it is not the goal, nor the job, of the Tribune owners to help the Deseret News survive financially.

That’s not to say that either party wants, nor seeks, the other’s demise.

Two strong partners in the JOA make more money for both. That’s the goal of the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, under which a monopoly is officially sanctioned by the federal government.

It is a bit ironic that an effort by one group of Tribune supporters – headed up by a former Tribune reporter and daughter of the late Tribune publisher Jerry O’Brien – is to get the federal Justice Department to review the October 2013 JOA changes. For that review is likely holding up now a sale of the Tribune to any buyer, including a “local” buyer.

But what is that local buyer going to get?

And what is the Tribune going to get?

Without a reworking of the October 2013 JOA, the buyer would get a financially troubled product whose profit share went from 58 percent to 30 percent.

Over the last year fine reporters, editors and photographers have been laid off and Tribune newspaper sections reduced.

In addition, the Tribune could get local owners (and I’m not talking specifically about Huntsman Sr. here) who could bring any number of sacred cows into the editorial and newsroom products.

I remember well the belief of the late Deseret News City Editor Lou Bate – a journalist much revered in the DN newsroom.

Bate would say that the News had one big sacred cow – the LDS Church. (He was speaking about the newspaper back in the 1970s and 1980s).

But Bate would add that the Tribune – then owned locally by extended family members of the late Sen. Thomas Kearns – had a bunch of smaller sacred cows.

Everyone knew the News’ sacred cow.

But most Utahns didn’t know the Tribune’s – even though they were there.

For example, back then the top Tribune editor’s daughter was a fighter to preserve historic buildings in Utah – so there were always stories about such efforts.

The Trib editors/publishers pushed for new forms of local governments. And when I was a DN reporter covering Salt Lake City government we saw all kinds of Trib stories in favor of such government reforms.

The Kearns and their heirs were Catholics, and we saw a lot of Catholic-focused news stories.

Are these terrible journalist things? No, but as Bate observed, the Tribune had it sacred cows as well as did the Deseret News.

Years ago, the Tribune had a written policy that it would run a story if a “public figure” was arrested for a crime – even a misdemeanor.

A close family member of one of the former Tribune owners was certainly a “public figure” because of his standing in the community. And he was arrested for an embarrassing misdemeanor.

Did the Tribune run the story, as its written guidelines would have required?

No, editors changed the written guidelines and the man was not embarrassed publically in the pages of the Tribune. (The DN editors, lacking such a written guideline, also decided not to run the story.)

Today, the hedge fund owners and the New York-based Digital First have no interest in local Utah politics and/or civic matters. I see no sacred cows in the Tribune’s newsroom currently.

But they certainly could return, although with a different bent, with a “local” owner.

As I’ve written before, I want the Tribune to survive, both as an “independent” editorial voice and financially.

But don’t necessarily assume that finding a “local” buyer for the Tribune means successes on either of those fronts.