Judge to hear motion to dismiss lawsuit filed against Tribune, Deseret News

By Emiley Morgan, Deseret News

Published: Mon, July 21, 2014, 5:35 p.m. MDT

 FILE - In this June 16, 2014, file photo, the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, newspaper boxes are shown next to each other in Salt Lake City.

FILE - In this June 16, 2014, file photo, the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, newspaper boxes are shown next to each other in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge will hear arguments on whether to throw out a lawsuit filed against the Deseret News and the owners of the Salt Lake Tribune by a group critical of the papers' joint operating agreement that was revised in September.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups decided to hear the motion to dismiss, filed jointly by Kearns-Tribune and Deseret News Publishing Co., before hearing a request for a preliminary injunction from the Utah Newspaper Project, or Citizens for Two Voices. He said that if the group can't "get over the legal hurdles" in the motion to dismiss, the injunction hearing won't even be necessary.

The judge set a hearing for the motion to dismiss on Sept. 8.

Utah Newspaper Project, a group of Tribune supporters and former staffers, filed the lawsuit in June and contends that revisions to the newspapers' joint operating agreement make up violations of interstate trade and various antitrust laws and have left the Tribune "in imminent danger of ceasing publication." Yet John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, which owns Kearns-Tribune, wrote in a court declaration that "nothing could be further than the truth."

"Our purpose was exactly the opposite: to make the Tribune a stronger, self-sustaining newspaper that could survive long-term in a world with very different newspaper economics than before, while at the same time monetizing some declining legacy assets in accordance with our company's overall strategic plan," Paton said.

The decades-old agreement was renegotiated by Kearns-Tribune, via its owner Digital First Media, and the Deseret News in October 2013. Digital First Media is owned by New York-based Alden Global Capital LLC.

Paton wrote in the declaration filed in court that the company has no plans to cease publications of the newspaper "today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year or ever." He said that the agreement was changed to reflect the company's digital-minded strategy and that undoing the joint operating agreement could be fatal to the newspaper.

"This arrangement allowed us to maximize our digital revenue opportunities," Paton said.

Deseret News managers have also reiterated that they never intended to put the Tribune out of business and are committed to the presence of diverse editorial voices in the Utah community.

Utah Newspaper Project is asking a judge to find that the revised agreement is illegal and stop its implementation as well as award relief to "restore effective competition."

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam