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Blood Feud

The Post's Dean Singleton joins a newspaper marriage even more strained than Denver's.

The joint operating agreement between the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post still isn't official: The Justice Department has been busy with something or other -- a presidential election fiasco, I think -- and hasn't gotten around to sealing the pact with its kiss. But thus far, the lead-up to the pairing has been awfully polite, with little more than the occasional whine from News editor John Temple about the Post printing mean headlines and a few nyaah-nyaahs from Post columnist Chuck Green to mar the overall sense of decorum. Nevertheless, arranged marriages like this can lead to no shortage of nastiness, as Post owner Dean "Dinky" Singleton understands full well. You see, he's presently up to his hip-waders in one of the foulest messes in recent memory, an epic battle between two Salt Lake City dailies that have been linked by a JOA for decades.

The primary combatants are the Deseret News, an afternoon sheet owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormon church, which is arguably the most powerful organization in Utah, and the morning Salt Lake Tribune, the community's largest: Its Monday-Saturday circulation of around 134,000 is just over double Deseret's. Singleton's MediaNews Group, which holds the titles to nearly 150 newspapers nationwide, has reached an agreement to buy the Tribune from its current owner, AT&T -- but because the Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Company, which manages the Tribune, believes it has an option to buy the paper in 2002, as well as an existing management contract, it's suing in federal court to squelch the compact and has named both AT&T and MediaNews in its action. The first hearing on the matter was on December 11. Whatever happens, though, the word war that's broken out is already one for the books.

Relations between Deseret and the Tribune have been unstable for quite some time, and not only because the Tribune generates a reported 70 percent of the profits flowing into the Newspaper Agency Corporation (NAC), which handles business operations for the publications, but only gets to keep 58 percent of the total because of a clause in the JOA, established in 1952. Deseret has wanted to move from an afternoon to a morning publication schedule since at least 1985, but the Tribune has blocked the switch because, according to Tribune general manager Randy Frisch, Deseret isn't willing to pay its fair share of the costs for doing so -- and the JOA requires an accord on this matter to be reached before anything else can happen. Deseret publisher Jim Wall, who jumped to the paper this summer from the Denver Post, where he had been general manager and executive vice president, counters that the playing field isn't level, partly because the NAC is headed by Dominic Welch, who also happens to be publisher of the Tribune.

To muddy matters further, the LDS church has long been unhappy with the coverage it's received from the Tribune, which was created in 1871 by Mormon dissidents. An example: The Tribune recently reported that last spring, Welch was "summoned to a meeting with the LDS First Presidency, where members expressed displeasure with the newspaper's revisitation of the 1857 massacre of Arkansas immigrants by Mormons and their American Indian confederates." Deseret, meanwhile, tries to downplay the influence the LDS leadership has on its copy. In a piece published in June, editor John Hughes wrote that even though some editorials at the paper were "written within the framework of values and principles basic to the church," Mormon officials had never pressured him to add or subtract any story during his more than three years at the helm. But at the same time, the Deseret home page, at deseretnews.com, is loaded with LDS links, and when representatives of the LDS Church News, the sect's official publication, were asked to name an official church envoy to comment on the proposed Tribune transaction, they named Deseret publisher Wall.

The Tribune's 1997 sale by its longtime owners, Kearns-Tribune, to Denver-based Tele-Communications Inc., run by moneybags John Malone, didn't engender nearly as much fury as the latest arrangement because the companies had been friendly for ages; Kearns-Tribune was instrumental in helping TCI grow from a few regional cable services to an industry powerhouse. Moreover, Malone allowed the Kearns-Tribune folks to run the paper and gladly inked the repurchase-option contract. But when Malone sold TCI, the Tribune wound up with owner AT&T, which was mainly interested in unloading it.

For a while, the LDS church explored the possibility of snapping up the Tribune, which would have neatly removed a large thorn from its posterior. But the church eventually dropped out, Wall acknowledges, partly because of anti-trust concerns. Salt Lake Tribune Publishing stepped up next, but Deseret types objected under what they say is language in the JOA that gives them the right to sign off on any potential buyer. The Tribune's Frisch denies this: "That's a red herring. They say they need to approve any stock transfer, but the stock's been transferred fourteen times and no approval was ever needed before." However, the dispute appears to have soured AT&T on dealing with the Tribune people, and when MediaNews surfaced with an offer reportedly in the range of $185 million to $200 million -- and Deseret execs gave their blessing -- a deal was made.

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