It’s about information. Competitive news organizations are supposed to provide readers, viewers and listeners with comprehensive coverage of their community. Based on American journalism tradition, they’re also supposed to serve as watchdogs over powerful people and institutions. Competition is supposed to be good and is supposed to promote diverse news reporting.
Trouble is that Utah’s leading newspapers and television stations only do a fair-to-good job providing comprehensive coverage and a poor job doing the watchdog thing. Maybe it’s due to too many connections that thwart competitive coverage, such as the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune being joined at the NAC navel.
Anyway, Utah’s less-than-vigorous major print media left the door open for an “alternative press” like City Weekly, a scrappy paper that often covers matters that the mainstream publishers lack the desire or guts to tackle.
Back in 1970, when I returned to KSL from serving in Vietnam, I was assigned the Salt Lake City/County beat over at Washington Square. Clarence “Scoop” Williams covered the same beat for the Trib. Scoop was a newspaperman right out of the cast of Front Page: A high school dropout, he worked his way up from copy boy—the whole bit. He’d regale with stories about the days when he worked for the Salt Lake Telegram, going back to 1922.
While working for the Telegram, Scoop covered the LDS church headquarters beat. Way back then, the church let reporters wander from office to office, even popping into the office of presidents of the church, like Heber J. Grant. Not unlike when I covered the state capital in 1968, when a reporter could drop in on Secretary of State Clyde Miller, Attorney General Phil Hansen or Gov. Calvin Rampton. But back then, Scoop could actually cover the Mormon church like a government beat and report on what was going on and, to the extent the Telegram dared, serve as a watchdog over the state’s most powerful institution.
OK, now getting to my point. The Telegram back then was the closest thing to what City Weekly is today. It was popular. It served as alternative press to the two powerhouses, the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune. Scoop really tried to scoop—beat—the other papers. Readers were the better for the competition.
But the depression hit and the Telegram was not particularly flush with cash. So it failed. But back then, instead of letting the Telegram vanish and open a niche for outside competition, the Trib bought it up, merged staffs and operations somewhat, and forged on with the Telegram still going head-to-head against the Deseret News. This was back when evening papers were more popular than they are today (no evening TV news). With the bought-out Telegram not a true competitor to the two leading papers, competition diminished.
In the late ’40s, the News and Trib were suffering ad revenue setbacks and the fear arose that the News could push for an antitrust suit against the Trib/Telegram alliance. That set the stage for a devil’s pact between what were once highly-competitive newspapers: the Trib sold the Telegram to the Deseret News—which added the name to its masthead for a while—effectively merging the afternoon competitors. That was a preliminary step to combining the competing papers’ production and advertising into the Newspaper Agency Corporation in 1952.
Scoop stayed with the Trib. Competition plummeted. The Tribune, which had long abandoned its strong anti-LDS editorial position in favor of currying favor, adopted an even more token watchdog role over LDS business and politics. The state’s leading papers almost seemed to pick symbolic disagreements, like the fight over liquor by the drink in the ’60s.
But now, the marriage of unlikely partners is breaking up in dramatic fashion, in a battle that, in one way or another, appreciably affects the quality of information in Utah. The News claims the Trib is unfairly thwarting its move to mornings, a move it needs to make to survive. And the Trib claims the News has tried to purchase the paper to squelch even token watchdog coverage over the Mormon church.
Is it a fight between good and evil, as each side sees it?
Way back when, when I was taking journalism courses at Utah State University, we budding journalists were warned that too often, reporters try to find good guys and bad guys in conflict stories. Sometimes, we were taught, conflicts were not between good and evil but a “pissing match between skunks.” I warned my students that same thing when I taught journalism at BYU. (Yes, you can say “pissing” at BYU and live to tell about it.)
Both daily papers have become extraordinarily mediocre. That’s why, as a freelance reporter, during the past decade, I could cover three important stories for City Weekly—the Bonneville Pacific and Giftgate scandals of then-Mayor Deedee Corradini, and the Olympic bid scandal—and kick the Trib’s and News’ butts at will. They are simply not strong competitors in the tradition of American journalism or Scoop Williams.
Neither paper can be proud of the 1952 devil’s pact and the resulting restraint of competition. While the present meltdown may result in a bigger role for City Weekly, Utah news consumers would be better off if NAC were abolished, the Deseret News would allow the Kearns McCarthey family to buy the Trib back and the News moved to mornings—then both could survive economically. And maybe some real competition could emerge. Maybe some genuine news coverage of Utah’s powerful institutions and people might emerge.
I hope the Tribune can survive and become the paper it should have been. I also hope the News survives, ruffles plenty of Trib feathers in a new morning slot, and becomes the paper even a house organ might be.
But if the Tribune empire does collapse, City Weekly has first dibs on Robert Kirby.