I spent a half-hour Tuesday afternoon watching TribTalk, The Salt Lake Tribune’s online sleeping aid. No offense to Tribune Editor and Publisher Terry Orme, who presented his take on what many folks are wondering about lately—will there even be a Salt Lake Tribune a year from now?—but TribTalk is not an exciting program. Much to her credit, host reporter Jennifer Napier-Pearce, whom I’ve never met, put her best face forward while tossing Orme the appropriate softballs. I came away thinking there’s hope for the seriously white, male and gray-haired Tribune after all.
I predict that the Tribune will be here next year, but I’m also the guy who predicted that Osbournes Reloaded would last more than one episode back in 2009. As coincidence would have it, 2009 was also the year that many investors discovered that buying newspapers en masse under huge corporate umbrellas was not such a swell idea. By 2009, the Internet was eviscerating the economic engine of many newspapers by wiping out their classified sections. At the same time, the national economy—the steam engine that funded most dailies—began to falter, taking national advertising with it. The financial plunge suffered by many in the print-news business lingers today, as was evidenced by the grimaces on poor Orme’s face.
As much as I despise the JOA (currently managed by MediaOne), this new split doesn’t look to be a good one for the Tribune or anyone thinking of buying it. Before this latest illegal arrangement, the older illegal arrangement allowed 58 percent of revenues to be paid to the Tribune owners and 42 percent to the Deseret News ownership after MediaOne had paid for nearly all newspaper services outside of editorial. Sparing the details, the new outcome is that the Tribune gets just 30 percent of those leftover MediaOne revenues going forward. They keep all their own digital revenue—which is growing, according to Orme—but won’t have to mess with the printing press any longer.
As these are private numbers held by two private corporations, no one really knows what that 30 percent represents in real dollars, but business school dictates that all deals are fair unless one side is aggrieved. So far, readers are aggrieved, not ownership. Orme seemed to indicate he knew those numbers, but said little regarding them other than to predict a dire outcome if those numbers do not increase. Maybe—but that requires getting back to the notion that circulation is the telling factor of equity here.
I’ve read countless uninformed online comments about how the unfairness of the new JOA revenue split between the Deseret News (the smart guys who are willing to bust balls to make a good deal) and the Tribune ownership (the absentee-owner hedge-fund fellas who couldn’t care less if Mormons and non-Mormons don’t get along, just so long as they get paid), is all about how many people subscribe to each paper. Really?
In order to think that, you must first think that the world is only 4,000 years old—because if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. If you think that the latest circulation numbers that were reported in Tony Semerad’s most recent Tribune article are of any value, you must accept that both of our daily newspapers are only a few months old, virgin birthed in October 2013. The reality is that daily newspapers have been bullshitting their circulation numbers for decades in every city in America, even here in God’s backyard.
Today’s lower circulation numbers don’t reflect the true value of either paper’s readership. Circulation has been an artificial measure of effectiveness from Day 1. The higher the circulation, the higher the rate newspapers charged for ads. Every year, merchants got a rate increase. It got to the point that selling a lawnmower in the daily paper cost more than the lawnmower itself. It’s not so amazing that free sites like Craigslist killed newspaper classifieds; it’s more amazing that dailies, like climate-change deniers, ignored the inevitable.
Does it really matter to the local diner that the Tribune or Deseret News has 100,000 or 1,000,000 readers, if those readers live in Egypt? Or if those readers are staying in a hotel in Provo, or reading the paper in a library in Ogden, or are members of the fifth-grade civics class at a school in Tooele and not likely to eat in that diner anytime soon? Dailies have only cared about raising circulation, raising rates and selling ads to General Motors and those tire guys on State Street, so they stacked their circulation numbers. All the diner owners care about is somebody sitting down for a pile of spaghetti.
A few years ago, during a separate spat of whining (and Dean Singleton being a Grinch), we bought the Tribune staffers a Christmas party. How quickly they forget, because, hey, I was really hoping Orme would speak to a bit of history today, but he didn’t. He indicated he’s not sure if he would be able to fire more people should he be put in that position again. Because, truth is, he’s already had a hand in killing quite a few. It seems to me that folks who care so much about “voices” should also care about the many that have already died, like The Midvale Sentinel, The Event, The Salt Flat News, The Green Sheet, LaPrensa and so on, partly due to the out-of-bounds monopoly play of the JOA and its ability to stack even the Titanic deck chairs in its favor.
I don’t want the Tribune to die. I don’t want the remaining friends I have there on the street. But I do ask that people with an emotional stake in this consider that, unless you come clean and define it only as a Mormon/non-Mormon issue, there are not just two sides to this coin.