Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Cutting Through the Conspiracy Theories About the Salt Lake Tribune

I’ve written several columns about The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News financial controversy.

And I’d hoped not to write any more.


But please allow me this one.

There have been all kinds of crazy accusations floating around these days, mostly by pro-Tribune advocates. (I actually consider myself one of these – pro-Tribune advocates that is, not crazy accusation floaters).

So, with 33 years experience at the DN – and having first-hand knowledge of what I speak – let me state some of the accusations with the accompanying corrections.

But first,  allow me to digress for a moment.

We – the rational among us – like to make fun when right-wing nut cakes come up with their black helicopter conspiracies. The World Bank is doing this. The United Nations is doing that kind of stuff.

But when liberals come up with their own set of crazy conspiracies, we just either agree or let the accusations stand without challenge.

Why is that?

Shouldn’t the truth and rational reasoning be the standard for both?

I say yes.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard about the Trib/DN conflicts from those on radio talk shows, through the Internet, or newspaper articles and columns. These come in no order of importance:

1) The LDS Church has for years, and continues, to financially subsidize the Deseret News.


In the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and up until the Great Newspaper Collapse of the late 2010s, the Deseret News made its owner a lot of cash each year – overall tens of millions of dollars.

This was under the old 58-42 percent split of the Joint Operating Agreement – with the DN getting only 42 percent of the Newspaper Agency Corp. profits.

How dare I say that?

Look at simple evidence: The News was willing to pay cash, more than $12 million for its share, of the new West Valley press/advertising facility. For financial reasons, the News paid more than half of its share through cash, borrowing the rest.

The Tribune, however, borrowed all of its share for the new building/presses. (Settling that debt was one reason for the reworking of the NAC’s JOA last October to a 70-30 percent print profit split.)

The DN paid cash in the mid-1990s for its new, nine-story office building on the northwest corner of 100 South and Regent Street – I was told around $16 million.

If it wasn’t making a lot of money, the newspaper couldn’t have paid cash for that rather opulent building – the 7th floor boardroom was a thing of wonder and beauty – nor the new presses.

(The Church sold the building after the staff-reduced DN moved into the Triad Center.)

DN employee salaries were, for years, higher than Tribune salaries. The DN had better health care and pensions.

The DN had a staff about the size of the Tribune (if not larger), while getting 42 percent of NAC profits to the Tribune’s 58 percent.

In short, the DN made the Church a lot of money over the last 40 years.

(Yes, the JOA allowed the DN to make money. But that was the whole idea of the JOA – both newspapers would make more money together than separately.)

2) Through the JOA the Tribune and DN got along just fine, with the NAC board of directors split two votes for the DN, two votes for the Tribune.

Thus the new JOA’s 3-2 majority for the DN has something sinister behind it.


While each newspaper had two votes on the four-member NAC board, the chairmanship of NAC was ALWAYS in Tribune hands. And the chair broke any tie votes. So on any controversial decision it was a 3-2 vote with the Tribune getting the final say.

During the 1980s and 1990s until Dean Singleton’s MediaNews group bought the Tribune, the Tribune bosses time and again thwarted DN efforts to: Go to morning distribution, as the NAC contract allowed; increase DN self-advertising to increase circulation; and any other number of issues the DN bosses wanted, but the Tribune bosses refused to allow.

This was a bad marriage, with one spouse constantly abused by the other, more powerful, spouse.

3) The only reason for the Tribune owners to allow the DN to have a 3-2 majority vote on the newly-reconstructed NAC board is to slowly kill the Tribune.


After 60 years of having the Tribune, through its 3-2 vote majority on the NAC board, run the News’ finances, DN owners wanted a time where it had the 3-2 NAC majority votes.

Why was it OK for the Trib to have 3-2 NAC majorities for 60 years, but now that the DN has the 3-2 NAC majority for six months it is somehow a conspiracy for LDS Church leaders to kill the Tribune?

4) If the new 70-30 NAC printed profit split isn’t changed, the Tribune will die.


While the new 70-30 DN split is worse for the Tribune than the old 58-42 Tribune split, the Tribune is still publishing with 30 percent of the printed profits.

Is it harder for the Trib? Yes.

Tribune Editor/Publisher Terry Orme has said time and again the Tribune is not going to fold – although he would like the Trib to get more than 30 percent of the printed NAC profits.

The New York-based hedge fund that owns the Tribune, and 100 other newspapers across the country under the old MediaNews corporation, sold the presses, other NAC real estate and reworked the printed profit split to 70-30 percent for the DN for (it is rumored) tens of millions of dollars, paid by the DN/LDS Church.

It was a business deal.

For its investment, the DN/Church gets total control of the production facilities and a 3-2 vote on the NAC board.

But if you read the new JOA contract here (thanks Sen. Jim Dabakis for making this public), you see all kinds of contractual guarantees aimed at supporting the Tribune. I can assure you, you wouldn’t find such a list in the old NAC contract supporting the DN, when the Tribune had the 3-2 NAC board majority.

The Tribune is still putting out a good product. It appears to be financially sound – if operating on a reduced budget – with 30 percent of the NAC printing profits.

All newspapers in America are struggling; a few have closed. These are the tough financial times we live in.

5) There is a conspiracy by LDS Church leaders and the Tribune New York-based owners to kill the Tribune, and its “independent” voice in Utah.


This is the most egregious allegation – and the liberal’s most infamous black helicopter.

Let’s, for a second, even suppose the Church leaders want the Tribune dead, and I’m not certain they do.

It is counter to reason to believe the hedge fund bosses want the Tribune dead. A dead Tribune makes no profits for the hedge fund. A dead Tribune, no longer publishing, has no value to the hedge fund. It can’t be sold.

The hedge fund wants to make money. That is it’s ONLY motivation. A dead Tribune, or a financially-crippled Tribune that is withering on the vine, makes no money for the hedge fund.

It makes no financial sense for the hedge fund to “conspire” to kill the Tribune. None.

Will the hedge fund sell the Tribune to Jon Huntsman Sr.? Sure, if the price is right.

Will the DN/LDS Church allow – as the NAC contract now provides, and as previous NAC contracts allowed – Huntsman Sr. to buy the Tribune? Sure, I’m guessing.

Huntsman has close ties to Church leaders and is a force for good in the community.

Will Church leaders rework the 70-30 profit split to give the Huntsman Tribune more profit? Sure, for the right amount of money.

After all, the Church paid good money to get that 70-30 split. Why would leaders just give money away to Huntsman, even if they do like him?

6) The October 2013 NAC reworking – the sale of presses and the new 70-30 split – was a sham, the real goal is to let the Trib die over time.


Not only does this not make financial sense to both parties, it would be a huge PR risk for the Church.

If it were later proven to be true, the LDS Church would get so much bad publicity – here, nationally and internationally – that it would be nuts for Church leaders to risk it. And these guys aren’t nuts.

The Tribune’s “independent” voice may be an irritant to Church leaders at times, but a dead Tribune – with Church leaders’ fingerprints on the corpse – would be a PR disaster lasting decades.

7) The October 2013 NAC reworking was done “in secret,” and “behind closed doors,” thus proving a sinister intent.


All private business deals are done behind closed doors – even if newspaper reporters like me don’t like it.

The 1952 and 1982 NAC contract, and more recent NAC reworkings, were done behind closed doors. The October 2013 was no different, and not different than contract business deals done every day.

How many times over the last 30 years have local TV stations, Channels 2, 4 and 13, been sold? More than a dozen. And did we see outcries when their news budgets were cut, much-respected reporters and editors let go?

So in conclusion: Liberal black helicopter folks, land your machines and join the real world again.

Your Salt Lake Tribune conspiracy theories are holding no water. None.

There are many good reasons to save the Tribune – and I’m one that certainly supports that goal.

Just don’t use all this nonsense we’re hearing these days. It harms, rather than shores up, your efforts.