Family's purchase of Salt Lake paper closes; lawsuit dropped

SALT LAKE CITY – The Salt Lake Tribune officially belongs to the wealthy and influential Huntsman family.

Paul Huntsman’s purchase of the Tribune from Digital First Media closed Tuesday, the same day a group that sued over altered terms of a joint operating agreement between the Tribune and Deseret News dropped its lawsuit. The group said it is confident the terms of the Tribune’s sale leave the newspaper on solid ground.

The Tribune will get 40 per cent of profits under amendments made to the joint operating agreement that were part the sale, said Joan O’Brien, a former Tribune staffer who led the coalition of community members who sued.

That is an increase from the 30 per cent the Tribune was left with after the decades-old agreement was modified in 2013 in exchange for the Deseret News sending a one-time lump sum payment to Digital First Media. But it’s still far less than the 58 per cent the Tribune had before the deal was revised.

Karra Porter, a lawyer for the group that sued, said even though the Tribune doesn’t recover the full profit margin of the past, other aspects of the sale terms that the group was allowed to see but can’t make public give the group confidence “the Tribune will do all right.” The deal to sell the Tribune to the Huntsmans was announced in April.

Porter and O’Brien said they met with Huntsman for several hours, asking a host of probing questions. They came away ready to give their stamp of approval for a sale that is widely been viewed as a positive in the community.

The joint operating agreement amendment also changes language so the Deseret News no longer has total veto power over a new Tribune owner. That clause was one of the things Porter argued in the lawsuit violated antitrust laws.

“We’ve got a benevolent local owner who is going to work with the Deseret News, who’s committed to the strong, independent voice of the Tribune,” said O’Brien, a former Tribune reporter. “We think it’s the best possible outcome given the circumstances.”

Complete terms of the sale, including how much Huntsman paid, have not been disclosed.

The Tribune had been struggling after the previous modification to the joint operating agreement cut its share of profits nearly in half, creating stifling financial uncertainty.

Those changes not only triggered the lawsuit by O’Brien’s group, it led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. That inquiry was closed Tuesday, according to Porter, who said she was authorized to make that announcement.

Justice officials said they don’t discuss when investigations are open or closed, but they said in a statement the agency is pleased the two Salt Lake City newspapers have “restructured their relationship to eliminate concerns about the continued publication of the Tribune.”

The Deseret News said in a statement that it agreed to let Huntsman purchase the Tribune and buy back part of the joint operating agreement profit percentages after being first approached by Digital First Media in early 2015. The Mormon-owned newspaper said ownership and editorial control of the two newspapers has always remained independent even as the joint operating agreement has changed.

The Huntsmans, who are predominantly Mormon and Republican, are one of the most influential families in Utah. Paul Huntsman, 46, joins a growing list of powerful millionaires buying local newspapers that also includes founder Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, owner of the Boston Globe.

Paul Huntsman said in a letter to readers posted Tuesday that he bought the newspaper to preserve an independent voice vital to the community, not necessarily to make money — although he believes that will happen.( ).

“The Tribune is to Utah what the First Amendment is to the Constitution: a legacy guarantee of independent and, at times, adversarial thought,” wrote Paul Huntsman, who will take over as publisher.

He said he enters with his eyes wide open to the fact that there is no clear financial model for newspapers that have struggled to recoup losses from print ad revenues. “Only bold strategies, technological upgrades, creative products and selective efficiencies will give The Tribune financial health and the long-term ability to make a difference,” Huntsman wrote.

Huntsman, 46, said he’s an active Mormon, but he said he will not allow the Tribune to be held hostage by “ideology, political persuasions, business pressure or particular dogma.”

“We will hold every person of influence and entities accountable for their actions as we will hold ourselves responsible for fairness, accuracy and independence,” he wrote. “It is crucial to the civic health of any democracy to have a strong, reliable, independent second opinion.”

O’Brien said her group, called the Utah Newspaper Project, plans to stay active and monitor how the Huntsman ownership of the Tribune plays out. But she said thinks Huntsman understand the value of the Tribune’s brand as an independent watchdog.

Longtime newsroom leader Terry Orme will cede his duties as publisher but remain the newspaper’s top editor.

“I’m happy and very pleased,” Orme said. “We have an engaged and committed new owner. That puts us in a much more tenable situation than we were in.”