Something scary is happening to The Salt Lake Tribune. Unless you've been totally stupefied by coverage of the government shutdown, you've heard about ever deeper staff cuts—the last one gutting the newsroom by 20 percent of what was already a severely reduced staff. Then, in the last two weeks, the Trib ownership sold its share of the printing plant to joint-operating agreement partner Deseret News. Then, we learned that its split of profits with the church-owned DNews has been halved.
The Trib staff has lost faith that Digital First Media (or Media News or whoever is in charge) any longer has a strategic plan, other than stripping the paper down to increase returns to investors. As one observer noted: “It's like stripping out and selling the copper plumbing and wiring of a house before you default on it.”
It was telling that the only quote on the profit-sharing change came from newly installed Publisher Terry Orme who said ownership “assured” him the change wouldn't affect his budget. “That's a relief to me,” Orme said, indicating that the Trib's publisher no longer is consulted in decisions.
UPDATE: Retirees and former Trib employees are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the changes to the joint-operating agreements because they would “would threaten the [Tribune's] independence and give too much control of The Tribune to the competing Deseret News Publishing Co. and its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The Trib, of course, is the victim of change in the digital news age. But the impact of its collapse as a news-gathering machine would be momentus in its media environment. Up until recently, the Trib prided itself as an independent voice in the region. And that is desperately needed because the LDS church, directly and through its members, dominates the politics, economics, culture and media of the region and beyond. Saying that isn't bashing Mormons or their hyper-organized religion. Any group or organization with that kind of power needs oversight. A watchdog is the hackneyed journalism term.
The cuts and fear of more slashing has muffled the Trib's bark. As for bite—investigative journalism and searing editorials—that went a long time ago. The paper has fallen into the hands of hedge-fund investors who won't have to live with the effects of their greed.
Full disclosure: I worked at the Trib (and before that at the Dnews). As a business writer, I covered much of the Trib's tumultuous recent history. Years ago, when the McCarthy family lost its bid to buy the paper back, I joked with my colleagues of a worst-case scenario for the Trib: The LDS church turns the DNews into a ward newsletter with family friendly articles and front-page reprints of religious leaders' fireside talks. Then, the church (or a closely related business group) buys the Trib, restaffs it with right-thinking folks and pretends it's a real newspaper. Ha, ha, right?
Have you looked at the Deseret News lately?