Utah newspaper owners to ask federal judge to dismiss lawsuit over operating agreement

MarketsAssociated Press

The owners of Salt Lake City's two daily newspapers will ask Monday that a federal judge dismiss a lawsuit challenging their joint-operating agreement.

Owners of the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune argue that a group of Tribune readers and former employees has no legal standing to challenge the agreement.

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The Utah Newspaper Project, the group that filed the lawsuit, says the agreement violates federal antitrust laws and undermines the Tribune's independent voice and ability to continue publishing. As readers and subscribers of the Tribune, they say they will suffer under the deal.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups is scheduled to hear the arguments Monday afternoon. It's not clear when he'll rule on the issue.

The controversy stems from changes made in October to the newspapers' six-decade-old joint operating agreement. Under the changes, the Deseret News purchased the Tribune's share of a printing plant and gets 70 percent of the profits from the newspapers' joint print advertising and circulation businesses.

The money from the sale of the printing plant was used to pay off debt for the Tribune's parent company.

The old profit split was 58 percent for the Tribune and 42 percent for the Deseret News.

The Utah Newspaper Project argues the deal gives too much power to the Deseret News, owned by which is owned by a for-profit arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That leaves The Tribune and its independent voice "in imminent danger of ceasing publication," according to the lawsuit.

Messages seeking comment were not returned Monday by Richard Burbidge, an attorney for Tribune owner Kearns-Tribune, and Robert Hyde, an attorney for Deseret News owner Deseret Management Corporation.

Joan O'Brien, chair of Utah Newspaper Project, said Monday that if Waddoups dismisses their lawsuit, the group plans to file it again or appeal.

"We're fighting for the newsgathering, and we're fighting for the newsgatherers, said O'Brien, a former Tribune staffer who left the newspaper in 2000. Her husband works as reporter for the paper, and her father was a former publisher.

Besides O'Brien, a Utah car dealer and a Republican state senator are among those who filed court documents asserting the Tribune's value as a secular news outlet.

The Utah Newspaper Project has also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the agreement. Messages left with the Department of Justice were not returned Monday, but O'Brien said a Justice Department investigator has met with her group.

Antitrust lawyers with the Utah attorney general's office are also reviewing the deal. Attorney General Sean Reyes said in June that he is not interfering with the Justice Department investigation, "but the state still has an independent interest in investigating and enforcing our antitrust laws outside of the scope of that federal review."

The state investigation is ongoing, Reyes' spokeswoman Missy Larsen said Monday.

The two newspapers have had a joint operating agreement since 1952 that combines printing, advertising and circulation operations. The editorial functions of both newspapers remain separate.