SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group of former employees of The Salt Lake Tribune has filed a lawsuit to suspend and repeal the latest changes to the newspaper's joint operating agreement with the Deseret News, arguing the terms violate federal antitrust laws and undermine the Tribune's role as an independent voice.
In the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Utah, the group called the Utah Newspaper Project argues the recently revised agreement between Salt Lake City's two daily newspapers gives too much control to the Deseret News, which is owned by a for-profit arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The six-decade-old agreement was changed in October.
Under the new terms, 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 terms leave the Tribune "in imminent danger of ceasing publication," according to the lawsuit.
The group argues the agreement gives the Tribune too little revenue to publish its print edition long-term and also jeopardizes its website, which relies on print revenues.
The deal also threatens the newspaper's independence by giving the Deseret News veto power over any potential purchaser of the Tribune, the group said.
"The identity of a newspaper's owner is directly related and integral to, and to a significant degree controlling of, a newspaper's editorial policies and priorities," the lawsuit states.
Terry Orme, the Tribune's editor and publisher, declined to comment on the suit.
Messages seeking comment were not returned Monday by Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of the Deseret News Publishing Co. and Deseret Digital Media, or representatives for the Tribune's New York-based corporate owner, Digital First Media.
John Morton, a newspaper industry analyst from Jessup, Maryland, told The Associated Press in October that the revised agreement appeared to be motivated by the Tribune's need for cash. He didn't expect it to have a major effect on the newspaper's daily operations.
Morton also said he didn't see the changes as a move by the Deseret News to weaken the Tribune, which has a larger staff and slightly higher weekday circulation. He said it's highly unlikely that either newspaper could put the other out of business even if they wanted to.
"Unless something catastrophic happens to the Tribune's circulation, which is highly unlikely," Morton said in an email, "there will always be a JOA (joint operating agreement) in Salt Lake."
The Utah Newspaper Project sent a letter last year asking the U.S. Department of Justice to review the agreement.
Since 1952, the two newspapers have had a joint operating agreement that combines printing, advertising and circulation operations. The editorial functions of both newspapers remain separate.
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