At the start of April, a movement began asking people to “Save the Salt Lake Tribune.” A Facebook page for the group has picked up over 2,000 likes, and the online petition has gathered over 5,000 signatures.
The petition arises from an October deal which will fundamentally alter the way the Tribune operates, and dramatically decrease the amount of ad revenue it receives—while increasing the amount of revenue that goes to the Tribune’s rival, the Deseret News.
“There has been a hush-hush change in the relationship between the [Salt Lake] Tribune and the Deseret News. The Deseret News has made a deal with the hedge fund that [owns the Salt Lake Tribune and] destroys it,” State Senator Jim Dabakis, who founded the “Save the Tribune” website, told Utah Political Capitol. In the interview, Dabakis didn’t pull any punches. “The Deseret News went quietly, grabbed a big knife and plunged it into the heart of the Salt Lake Tribune. It will die if that agreement is allowed to stand.”
The Tribune and Deseret News have an interesting relationship. Though the two are rivals, they do have a shared business relationship wherein the two papers share both distribution costs and revenue from advertising sales. The Tribune, having the larger readership, has received 58 percent of all revenues generated under this joint partnership since it was arranged in the 1950’s. But in October, as ad revenue for print newspapers has been a in free-fall across the country, the Deseret News proposed an alteration to the partnership deal that gave the New York Hedge Fund which currently owns the Tribune an undisclosed lump sum of cash (rumored to be in the tens of millions). In return, the Deseret News will now receive 70 percent of future ad revenue brought in by both papers, with the Tribune will receiving the reamaining 30 percent. That drastically reduced revenue has spawned widespread speculation that the 144 year old newspaper will soon be forced to close its doors without enough of a budget to continue.
According to Dabakis, as well as former Salt Lake Tribune Editor Nancy Conway, the Tribune can not operate and will be out of business soon with only 30 percent revenue.
[pullquote]We are collecting peoples names for one reason: to save the Salt Lake Tribune – the loss of which would be generationally incalculable on so many issues. – Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City)[/pullquote]”The hedge fund gets millions of millions of dollars [out of the deal] and they are very happy, they are making money, that is what they do. The Deseret News, after a hundred years of competition, can look forward to the silencing of their editorial nemesis, and they also get to be the only player in the big newspaper business,” said Dabakis. “The only people who are harmed…are the citizens of Utah, who are left with a one voice town – and it is a particularly narrow voice.”
Complicating the issue is the two papers’ Joint Operating Agreement, which was formalized under the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. This means that any changes to the partnership must be reviewed by the Department of Justice—something that the Save the Tribune petition aims to take advantage of. “The petition is a small part of a package, ” Dabakis added. “We have to persuade the Department of Justice that this is a bad arrangement.” The Senator illustrated his point by pointing to the fact that the Deseret News lagged behind on reporting on the now infamous scandal around former Attorney General John Swallow, and says that is just one of many examples of how the Tribune—which broke the story and spearheaded a full investigation—has proven itself to be an important resource for the community.
But the petition has come under some fire during its brief existence. In particular, Utah Policy wrote an article claiming that “some Utah politicians” (who were not named) were questioning whether the petition would be used to harvest the names and addresses of petition signers, possibly for future campaign lists.
“The purpose of that petition is simple,” said Dabakis, “it is to demonstrate to the Department of Justice that this is an important issue for all Utahns. … We are collecting peoples’ names for one reason: to save the Salt Lake Tribune,“
It is also clear that Dabakis did not care for Utah Policy’s accusations, and the Senator had harsh words for the website and its owners.
According to Dabakis, Utah Policy’s publisher LaVarr Webb uses the website as his “personal blog” for promoting clients at his lobbying firm, Exoro Group, which funds Utah Policy. “When Utah Policy goes out and pretends to be a journalistic enterprise, what really they are are [doing is acting as] the spokesman for guys like LaVarr Webb and [Deseret News President and CEO] Clark Gilbert from the Deseret News who really don’t want to talk about this publicly, so they send out fake journalists like Bryan Schott [who authored the article going after Dabakis and the petition] to pretend as though they are presenting a news story, which is how it runs on KSL, when actually it is nothing more than paid lobbyist work. That is one of the reasons why it would be so awful if the Tribune goes out of business, all we have left is this one newspaper.”
When asked why he felt Utah Policy ran the article, Dabakis didn’t mince words.
“LaVarr Webb is a former editor of the Deseret News, he has very close ties, he is a Sunday columnist for the Deseret News where he takes care of his [lobbying] clients. It is clear that what Bryan Schott and LaVarr Webb and Utah Policy want to do is make sure they protect their clients, they want to protect the Deseret News and do whatever they can to make sure the Tribune is killed.”
[pullquote]We are not trying to practice journalism like an objective newspaper would. I don’t know where [Senator Dabakis’] comments are coming from. -LaVarr Webb[/pullquote]When contacted for comment on Dabakis’ claims, Webb quickly fought back. “I own Utah Policy…and it is used to comment on Utah politics,” said Webb, “It is meant to be a service to the public policy community—it is not meant to be objective journalism, we just try to provide a one stop-source on government news…we are not trying to practice journalism like an objective newspaper would.” Webb also said that the Deseret News is not a client, and that, while he does write a regular column for the paper, there is no written arrangement between the Deseret News and Utah Policy. Utah Policy does, however, have a formal arrangement KSL, which regularly features their work. “I don’t know where [Senator Dabakis’] comments are coming from,” Webb added.
UPC also reached out to Utah Policy managing editor Bryan Schott, but he is on vacation and unavailable for comment.