Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Charting the Tribune’s Future

bernick mugRumors are circulating among the Utah political elite that the sale of The Salt Lake Tribune to Paul Huntsman is going through.

And that must be considered a good thing – for it likely ensures the printing of the state’s largest newspaper for some time to come.

The recent history of Tribune ownership and management is torrid. I won’t go into it all, much too long for a column here.

If the sale does conclude, then it’s assumed two of Huntsman’s demands have been met: The group of former employees that sued to stop the recent contract reworking by the Mormon Church – owner of the Deseret News – and the New York hedge fund, who owns the Trib – has been dropped by the former employees, acting under the name Two Voices.

Likewise, Huntsman demanded that the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of the new contract under the Newspaper Preservation Act’s joint operating agreement (News and Trib), has also been resolved.

Huntsman said a month ago that he couldn’t buy the Tribune with those two issues hanging over the Tribune’s head.

Not explained, but assumed, is that the DN’s new split of the joint operating agreement’s printed papers – 70 percent of the profits to the DN, 30 percent to the Tribune – has also been changed somehow by Mormon Church leaders.

Before the reworking, the DN got 42 percent of the profits and the Trib 58 percent of the profits of MediaOne, the JOA’s organization.

No details yet if the profit split has been changed. But Jon Huntsman Sr., Paul’s billionaire father, last summer said his efforts to buy the Trib were dead because the deal was not financially workable.

Many assumed the church wouldn’t back off of the 70-30 split (for which the church paid millions of dollars), and so the Trib’s future was still very much in doubt.

Many newspapers across America, including the DN and the Tribune, have faced tough economic times, laying off staff, reducing the number of pages printed each day, and so on, as advertising revenues fell.

In fact, MediaOne recently announced that outside of northern Utah and Wasatch Front counties, the DN and Trib printed papers would only be delivered four days a week.

Readers would have to go online to read the newspapers in outlying areas.

The DN and Trib are still struggling to “monetize” their online editions – with the Tribune asking loyal online readers to voluntarily pay for electronic subscriptions – without a whole lot of success, I’m told.

Anyway, with Paul Huntsman – one son of Jon Sr. – buying the Tribune we can only hope for the paper’s success.

UtahPolicy and Dan Jones & Associates recently did a poll, asking respondents what they would like to see done with the Tribune.

Most want it to keep publishing.

But the perceived political leanings of the paper are also clearly revealed.

Only 13 percent of those who say they are “very liberal” don’t care if the Tribune keeps publishing or not.

And 44 percent of the “very liberal” say they support the paper’s sale to the Huntsmans.

But ask those who say they are “very conservative” politically, and you get very different answers.

Fifty-three percent of “very conservatives” don’t care if the paper survives or not.

And only 21 percent of the “very conservatives” support the paper’s sale to – and thus salvation by – the Huntsmans.

The Tribune has been seen as Utah’s liberal voice for years – but much more recently as the Deseret News has clearly moved to the right, with more reporting of LDS Church-related issues, like “happy” news about successful families and businesses, tales of faith, and such.

The Huntsmans do have clear ties to the Mormon Church. Jon Sr.’s wife is the daughter of a late member of the Quorum of the Twelve, the leaders of the church.

And Jon Sr. has been a member of one of the Quorums of the Seventy, also a leadership group inside the church hierarchy.

But Paul Huntsman is reportedly one of the more liberally-minded descendants – much like his older brother, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who came out in favor of same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it legal across the nation.

In any case, the Tribune has not been shy in editorializing against many recent LDS Church positions, like denying children of same-sex couples baptisms and other church offerings until they are adults and agree to follow church teachings on active homosexual issues.

Will the Tribune become more moderate editorially?

Will the newspaper be hampered in aggressively covering some Mormon Church-sensitive issues?

And how will the new Tribune cover the Huntsmans themselves – who are clearly one of the leading family dynasties in Utah.

Stay tuned.

But for now, it must be said a Huntsman purchase of the Tribune will be good for Utah newspapering, and the all-important government watchdog responsibility that falls on struggling printed papers across the country.