Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Don’t Expect Business as Usual for the Tribune

bernick mugGreat news this week that the well-known Huntsman family has made an offer to buy The Salt Lake Tribune.

Paul Huntsman, son of billionaire/philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., will buy the Trib, assuming two things are done:

— The group Two Voices drops its federal lawsuit over the renegotiated joint operating agreement between the Trib and Deseret News.

— And the Federal Justice Department drops its investigation over the joint agreement.

Getting the save-the-Trib group to drop its lawsuit may be possible. But one wonders what the group will demand in return for doing so.

Will they somehow try to bend the Huntsmans into promising no influence on the news-gathering side of the newspaper?

As my father – a longtime observer of newspapering in general, and Utah specifically – used to tell me: “What’s the fun in owning a newspaper if you can’t tell the editor what to run sometimes?”

It should be much harder to get the Justice Department to drop any ongoing investigation into whether the new joint agreement violates the newspaper preservation act.

The Two Voices folks and the Huntsmans could ask the feds to drop the inquiry, but they certainly can’t ensure that just by saying pretty please.

The Justice Department will do what they think is right, what is legal.

Has that hornets’ nest been kicked over – and the stinging actually stops the sale to the Huntsmans? We’ll see.

In any case, to believe that the Tribune won’t at times be influenced by the Huntsmans isn’t dealing with reality.

At the very least, I doubt you’ll be seeing the new Tribune sending reporters to Houston to do a story on Huntsmans’ vast petrochemical operations – with the explicit claim that the operations were causing cancer among workers.

The old Tribune did that story in 2004 – and the Huntsmans took out a full-page ad in the Trib slamming the story and pointing out what the family believed were bold face inaccuracies.

We can certainly expect that the Trib editorial page will look differently.

The current editorial policy of the Trib is definitely left-leaning – with the editorials being written and approved by what appears to be just three top-level staffers.

Any new Trib owner will have the final say in all editorials – that’s how newspaper ownership works.

And while the Huntsman family is Republican, some members of the family have been seen as moderates, certainly not archconservatives.

The Huntsmans are also faithful members of the LDS Church. Jon Sr.’s wife is the daughter of the late member-of-the-Twelve, David Haight. And Jon Sr. has been a member of one of the Quorum of the Seventies – both top-flight church leadership posts.

Former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. had endorsed same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the practice nationwide.

Many have wondered if Huntsman Jr. would ever return to Utah (he and his family live in Washington, D.C.) and run for the U.S. Senate.

Having the Tribune in Huntsman’s hands could help with that cause – and wouldn’t it be ironic that the Kearns-McCarthys first bought the Tribune way back in the early 1900s to further the political career of U.S. Sen. Thomas Kearns, only to see a whole new family connected to the Tribune and local politicians.

Two Voices and others have been saying that the new profit-sharing agreement – 70 percent of print revenues to the News, 30 percent to the larger-circulation Tribune – is slowing killing the Trib.

But each year the Trib has stayed operating, even giving 3 percent pay raises to staffers this year.

Yes, many good Trib journalists have been laid off over the last few years – but the News has seen even larger layoffs as all newspapers are struggling these days financially.

The Huntsmans have made an enormous financial commitment to fighting cancer (thus the quick, hard reaction to the 2004 news story claiming cancer among its corporate workers).

And it is hard to believe that Paul and Jon Sr. would pour funds into a red-ink newspaper when those monies could go to cancer treatment and research.

The LDS Church – the owners of the News – issued a statement this week saying it had nothing to do with the Huntsman/Trib-buying negotiations.

That implies that the 70-30 profit split remains unaltered.

When Jon Sr. said last summer that negotiations to buy the Trib had broken down, it was assumed the Huntsmans couldn’t get church leaders to change the 70-30 split – which the church reportedly bought for tens of millions of dollars from the Tribune’s current owners – a New York-based hedge fund.

I worked for over 30 years for the News and have had many friends and colleagues at the Trib for a long time.

I certainly believe in a strong two-newspaper town – that’s best for journalism and Utah society as a whole.

If the Huntsmans’ purchase of the Trib actually goes through, good luck to all.

But don’t expect business as usual for the Tribune, its editorial policy or even its reporting.

But do hope for a financially stable Tribune, and a good government watchdog in daily newspapering in this town.