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.
The Tribune reacted with enough righteous indignation to impress even Joe Lieberman. Tribune editor James E. Shelledy wrote a front-page editorial on December 3 hinting at dark conspiracies involving, among others, Mormon-friendly Senator Orrin Hatch, and implied that MediaNews's Singleton, identified as "until last year a member of Brigham Young University's Communications school board," was acting as a de facto front for the LDS church. Singleton, who identifies his faith as Baptist, memorably responded to this charge in the New York Times: "I don't think anybody has ever accused me of being a Mormon," he said. In addition, the Tribune ran an editorial cartoon in which MediaNews and AT&T were characterized as pinstripe-wearing gangsters shielding a cowering Deseret News, and Tribune was depicted as a cocky young newsboy rolling up his sleeves and asking, "Who's first?" Deseret swung back with an editorial of its own, headlined "Tribune Sale -- The Truth," stating that, "in fact, it is the voice of the Deseret News that has been under threat by the actions of the Tribune's management company" because the Tribune was trying to prevent it from moving to mornings.
Such posturing isn't restricted to the pages of the two papers. Deseret publisher Wall, who speaks about Singleton with as much personal warmth as he can muster, accuses the Tribune of "totally misrepresenting the pending sale." The Tribune's Frisch responds in kind: "The Tribune is a family heirloom that is being stolen," he says, adding, "That fuels a lot of rage." AT&T spokesman Steve Lang is considerably more circumspect: Aside from noting that his company views the Tribune as a "non-strategic asset," he declines further comment.
Thus far, Singleton has gotten little out of the Tribune but humiliation: When he arrived at the Tribune offices following the sale announcement, he was originally told that he couldn't speak with any employees at all, and even after a smallish meeting was arranged, he was hardly greeted like a conquering hero. But his expressions of astonishment over the entire muddle, symbolized by a December 5 piece in the Rocky Mountain News headlined "Utah Paper Controversy Shocks Post Owner," seem more than a little overstated. Indeed, Jody Lodovic, executive vice president and chief financial officer for MediaNews, concedes that "nothing that's happened so far has been a terrible surprise. We knew there was bad blood there; we had no direct knowledge of it, but it's been a very well-publicized situation there for a long time, and obviously there are a lot of emotions involved." Yet Lodovic emphasizes that problems like these have never scared off MediaNews, a company renowned for its willingness to pick the bones of newspaper carcasses: "We've done tough deals before, like buying the Oakland Tribune, which was basically a failing business about to go into bankruptcy. But you have to look at things long-term. There are some bumps, but those kinds of situations are where some of the best opportunities are."
Papers in joint operating agreements often fit that description, and if MediaNews gets its hooks into the Tribune, Salt Lake City will become the fourth burg in which the company is governed by a JOA, assuming that Denver falls into place: Charleston, West Virginia, and York, Pennsylvania, are the others. Lodovic doesn't see any reason to believe that the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post could someday wind up in a Tribune-like mire, and because there is no religious component to any dispute here, perhaps he's got an argument. But neither does he think the circumstances in Utah are all that untenable. "We're very comfortable in a JOA environment," he says, "and I don't think it makes things in Salt Lake any more complicated."
The Tribune's Frisch feels otherwise. "JOAs are very complex animals," he notes, "and they exact a toll on the employees of the agency that runs them when the two partners don't get along. It's been really difficult for them, because they get stories from both sides and they don't know who to believe -- but then they have to go out and sell advertising for both papers. It's a tough thing."
And getting tougher.
So long: Until recently, visitors to Colorado Public Radio's Web site, cpr.org, could find a question-and-answer document about its acquisition of a station at 1340 AM and its intention to turn the signal into a 24-hour classical outlet. Apparently these explanations failed to calm lovers of KVOD, the city's longtime commercial-classical voice, which is on the cusp of being silenced.
KVOD program director Jim Conder sent an e-mail to listeners last week revealing that the purchase of the outlet by Latino Communications' Zee Ferrufino, who intends to install a Spanish-language format, has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission, thereby hastening KVOD's demise. After noting that CPR's new acquisition, which it hopes to rechristen KVOD, "will carry neither the Metropolitan Opera nor Karl Haas's Adventures in Good Music" -- two station staples -- "nor have they contacted any of the current KVOD staff about possible employment opportunities," Conder also pointed out that the broadcaster's annual celebration of Beethoven's birthday was being canceled because of a lack of a promotional budget. Moreover, he revealed that the station itself would only be staffed until 7 p.m. Friday, December 15, "at which time we will all say goodbye and turn on the Beethoven Satellite Network (from Chicago -- very good, too), and that will stay on until Latino Communications decides to begin their new programming."
None of these turns was unexpected, but they caught many KVOD boosters off guard anyhow. The result was an absolute blizzard of e-mails, as I can testify personally, because copies of each of them were forwarded to me. (Thanks, friends.) Clearly, CPR has a long way to go before it convinces loyalists that the new KVOD will be nearly as good as the old one. To that end, the aforementioned CPR Web site is now asking listeners to send in their suggestions about what it should do with its latest purchase. For instance, should it maintain the status quo on CPR's mother station, KCFR-FM, while adding new items to 1340 AM, or make one signal all news and the other all classical?
No obscenities, please. After all, we're talking about classical music.
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