As the Battle to Save The Tribune heats up, the newspaper is beginning to acquire a halo as some facts go into soft focus.
It's especially noticeable in recent social media chatter about Sen. Jim Debakis’ own online effort to save The Trib—complete with a blood splattered front page. He calls the demise of the Trib a “catastrophe” and a “calamity.”
This Trib hagiography, in short, goes like this:
The Tribune since 1871 has stood up to the powerful economic, social and political interests of the LDS Church and the state's theocratic government to tell Utahns the Truth.
But it came to pass that the Trib was brought low by a recession, an inscrutable digital-media marketplace and Utahns’ growing ignorance of how vitally important the Trib is.
Meanwhile, the wounded Trib is being circled jackal-like by the LDS Church-owned KSL/Deseret News, eager to finish off their hated rival. Further, the jackals are conspiring with the greedy “New York Hedge Fund” that somehow came to own The Trib.
"The perp is the Deseret News, their bloody hands standing over the gasping Tribune," as Debakis gently puts it.
A lot of it is true: The Trib's reporters often poked into shenanegans involving Mormons, if not the church directly, that Deseret News and KSL would never go near. And it appears the Trib’s NYC owners sold the Trib's future for a chunk of cash, which was shipped out of state.
But what this narrative glosses over is that The Tribune’s management brought much of this nightmare upon themselves.
Somehow, folks have forgotten that former owner/publisher Dean Singleton (known in Denver as “Dinky Dean” for his parsimonious ways at the Post and in Dallas as Darth Vader for killing the Dallas Times-Herald) was not welcomed by Trib reporters and editors with open arms. He was seen as an arrogant carpetbagger with zero understanding of Utah culture or politics. (A mostly accurate assessment.)
One of the more amazing changes in mythology came about last week, when Nancy Conway, retired editor of The Tribune and long-time Singleton underling, spoke out in the save The Trib effort. "It is hard to see what has happened as anything other than a sellout," she told The Trib.
But who did the selling out?
Having covered, as a Trib reporter, Singleton’s battle with the McCarthy family for control of The Tribune, I remember things differently. Under the joint operating agreement (the evil JOA), the Deseret News had a veto over any potential buyer of The Trib (and vise versa--as if). Singleton, no fool, promised the LDS Church that he would not condone Mormon bashing in the paper. (Any negative story about the LDS church or members’ activities, of course, is often seen by the faithful as “Mormon bashing.”) Dean told the Trib staff that such reporting is “bigoted.” (Unfortunately, he had ammunition to clamp down on Trib reporters: Does anyone remember the Trib/National Enquirer vs. Elizabeth Smart scandal?)
Conway even discouraged stories critical of the Deseret News/KSL. Which made sense from a financial POV—under the JOA, Dean was getting 60 cents on every $1 the DNews made. (Under the new deal, BTW, The Trib gets a measly 30 percent.)
Singleton’s exceptionally bad timing in buying up dinosaur newspapers with other people's money is the reason The Trib is owned by hedge fund managers. You’ve got to wonder where the Trib would be today had the McCarthys re-gained ownership. (My guess: Locally owned, but still managed cluelessly and struggling for its life.) If you're interested in the details, a well-reasoned discussion is on-going on Debakis' Facebook account. Former Trib employee Bill Keshlear's comments, in particular, are illuminating.
Yes, Utah desperately needs a strong, well-funded independent investigative voice. But as this campaign to find a new owner for The Trib gains traction, it might be a good idea for someone, perhaps the excellent reporter Tony Semerad, to dig into the paper's sorry recent history and nail down what went wrong and what is worth saving.
Full disclosure: I am among the many reporters and editors laid off from The Tribune. I also (I'm not joking.) worked for the Deseret News.