With sale, Salt Lake newspaper feud boils over onto front pages

SALT LAKE CITY - Utah's two biggest newspapers have been at odds over religion for 130 years. Now they're adding newspaper ownership to their fight, and taking it to the front pages as well as the courts.

The long-running feud between The Salt Lake Tribune and the Mormon church-owned Deseret News erupted Dec. 1, when AT&T Corp. announced it was selling the Tribune to W. Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group Inc.

The Tribune responded by suing AT&T and the Denver-based MediaNews. It claimed the sale violated a contract clause giving Tribune managers, including the family that owned the paper for nearly a century, an option to buy back the paper in 2002. A hearing to temporarily halt the sale is scheduled Monday in federal court.

But the real attack came in the Tribune's own stories. The newspaper called Singleton a front man for the church and said the sale was a plot cooked up by the Deseret News to put the Tribune out of business.

Tribune Chief Operating Officer Randy Frisch accused Singleton of working on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has expressed interest in moving the afternoon Deseret News to morning publication to compete head-to-head with the Tribune.

Frisch said Singleton promised Deseret News publisher John Wall, a former employee at Singleton's Denver Post, that he would share control of the Newspaper Agency Corp., the company that prints, distributes and sells advertising for the two papers under a joint operating agreement

Singleton, a Baptist who has been on the journalism board for the Mormon church's Brigham Young University, says the purchase of the paper for a reported $200 million was purely a business decision. Including the Tribune, MediaNews publishes 48 daily papers and 94 non-daily publications in 12 states.

''This whole idea that we would buy the Tribune just to weaken it doesn't make any sense,'' Singleton said.

He would not comment on specifics of the lawsuit.

The Tribune's charges have been top news in a city often divided between Mormons and those who fear the church.

''Deseret News demanded changes,'' the Tribune's front page blared two days after the sale was announced. Inside, a letter from editor Jay Shelledy outlined a ''conspiracy'' to squelch the Tribune's independent voice by squeezing it economically.

The next day, the Deseret News fired back. ''Tribune sale - the truth,'' topped a front page story denying the Tribune's allegations.

The discord goes back decades.

When the Tribune was founded in 1870 by Mormon dissenters, its editor pledged to ''oppose the undue exercise of priestly authority.'' Four years later, tensions ran so high that Deseret News editor John Q. Cannon actually attacked Tribune reporter Joseph Lippman on the street and beat him with a whip.

''Both sides consisted of decent people, passionately committed to their beliefs. But their beliefs happen to be completely opposite,'' said Will Bagley, a historian who contributes to the Tribune.

Not much has changed.

''Normally, even though (two papers) may differ - and typically do editorially in a lot of ways in joint operating agreements - it hasn't ever risen to the level of rancor that exists in Salt Lake City,'' said John Morton, who runs a media consulting company in Silver Spring, Md.

The Tribune labels itself ''Utah's Independent Voice,'' and has featured articles criticizing the church's influence in local politics.

The Deseret News calls itself ''Utah's locally owned daily newspaper'' and dedicates space to church events and missionary reunions.

The Tribune's daily circulation is about 135,000, the Deseret News' about 66,000. They split revenues 58 percent for the Tribune, 42 percent for the News.

Singleton said he supports the News' desire to move to morning publication, a wish the Tribune has stalled for years by demanding the News pay for a new press and make up for the potential loss of advertising money to the Newspaper Agency Corp.

He argues that afternoon publication is probably dragging down joint revenues.

Singleton has not said whether he would honor Tribune managers' buyback option.

According to court documents filed Friday, AT&T agreed to reimburse MediaNews for losses up to $26 million if the paper's managers exercise their option and buy for less than $200 million. Tribune managers bid $180 million in this round but were rejected.

David Woolley of Provo, a Mormon, said he would get both papers if the Deseret News were available in the morning. For now, he subscribes to the Tribune and reads the afternoon paper on the Internet to get a balanced view.

''Salt Lake suffers from far too much editorial finger-pointing,'' he said. ''I would always go to both papers. They're both fascinating.''

But University of Utah English professor Thomas Huckin says he doesn't trust the Mormon church and takes the Tribune.

''I appreciate the fact that we have a major paper here that's not dominated by the church,'' he said.


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