Bob Bernick’s Notbook: Why Did the Trib Owners Wait So Long to Defend Themselves?

Finally, in response to a lawsuit filed by former employees and owners of The Salt Lake Tribune, we get a response to specific allegations of market-fixing/Tribune-killing by a Deseret News boss and a current Tribune owner.


You can read MediaNews CEO John Paton here.

Deseret News boss Clark Gilbert’s is here.

While it was never my intent to be a DN defender – after all, former top editors of the paper forced me out as political editor in 2010 and I retired from the place I’d spent 33 years – I did feel the need to write several columns for UtahPolicy about what I believed were over-blown and historically inaccurate accusations made publicly over the ongoing soap opera of Tribune/Deseret News conflicts.

You can read my previous columns on this subject here, and here.

Now in the Paton and Gilbert lawsuit responses is the other side of the story.

This, of course, will do little to stop or silence the Tribune supporters’ claims of skulduggery on the part of leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Still, it is amazing to me that Paton and Gilbert waited for a lawsuit response to defend themselves and their actions.

The Trib supporters’ claims, including the lawsuit and the request for a federal Justice Department investigation of the papers’ Joint Operating Agreement, have – I believe – been as much or more about Utah politics and public relations than Newspaper Preservation Act legal issues.

In fact, I’ve believed for some time that the real Tribune supporters’ public criticisms, rallies and so forth were attempts to publicly badger the LDS Church to change the newly-drawn up 70-30 print profit split.

For 60 years the Tribune owners got 58 percent of the print profits under two NAC agreements.

For 60 years the Tribune had a 3-2 majority vote on the NAC board of directors; and thus real control over Deseret News finances and – even more importantly – Deseret News publication and advertising issues.

As pointed out in Gilbert’s response, it was Paton and MediaNews – now doing business as Digital First Media – that approached the DN bosses last summer and asked for changes to the JOA.

As Digital First has done with some of its other newspaper properties, Paton wanted to sell the NAC presses to its JOA partner, sell other real assets (several properties in downtown Salt Lake City) and get complete control of the Tribune’s online digital future, and profits.

As part of that deal, made public through “leaks” to several Tribune reporters last fall, the print profits went from 58-42 percent for the Tribune to 70-30 percent split for the DN.

In addition, the DN got a 3-2 majority vote on the NAC board.

That sounds devastating to the Tribune.

And that is what the Trib supporters have been complaining about ever since – and what the lawsuit and complaint to the Justice Department seeks to stop.

However, as I pointed out in one of my columns, also part of the new JOA are considerable protections for the Trib’s print product.

In any case, Paton and Gilbert should have been speaking up way before now.

I know, I know. Any time a business is sued its standard procedure for the bosses to clam up.

But the DN and MediaNews guys should have been aggressively defending themselves – as best they could – for months.

And they weren’t – and were publicly bashed and harmed by it.

They are way behind the ball in trying to explain to the Utah public why they reworked the old NAC contract, and how, in their opinions, that new contract actually HELPS the Tribune’s future instead of harming it.

I don’t know what the latest public disclosures and/or lawsuit means for any local Utahn – specifically industrialist/philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. – desires to buy the Tribune.

In the short term, certainly the 70-30 printing profits split is not good news for any buyer.

But, as Paton details, the financial future of the Tribune – as I pointed out in my columns – seems secure.

MediaNews doesn’t want the Trib to fail, because there is no profit in that for the New York hedge fund that owns MediaNews.

Layoffs at the Trib resulted in a financially stable Tribune’s upcoming fiscal year, which started July 1.

The newspaper is not going to close any time soon, if ever, says Paton.

Still, I found one paragraph of Paton’s lawsuit response interesting.

He said if the new NAC agreement is overturned or put on hold for a long time, THAT in itself could result in failure of the Tribune.

A threat to the noisy Tribune supporters’ and their lawsuit?

Sure sounds like it.