Beliefnet
SALT LAKE CITY--Dean Singleton hopes federal Judge Tena Campbellthrows out an effort by managers of the Salt Lake Tribune to stopSingleton's MediaNews Group from buying Utah's largest newspaper. Singleton's newspaper empire produces more than $1 billion in annualrevenues, and he testified Monday he hopes to expand that by purchasing theSalt Lake Tribune before the end of the year.

"We're buying it for our own account. We're not fronting for anyone,"Singleton said, denying rumors he was acting on behalf of the Tribune'srival, the LDS Church-owned Deseret News. The Deseret News triedunsuccessfully last year to buy the Tribune's stock from owner AT&T. "We'respending $200 million of our own money to buy a newspaper that we want tobuy," Singleton said.

Heirs of the newspaper's founders continued to manage the Tribune even afterit was acquired through mergers in 1997 with TCI and two years later byAT&T. And they have an option agreement to buy back the Tribune by July 31,2002, at fair market value.

The family members claim AT&T's agreement to sell the Tribune to Singletonviolates that option agreement and they sued, asking Campbell to stop thesale until the issue can go to trial.

But Singleton claimed Tribune stories about the proposed sale could damagethe newspaper's value if they continue for several months. "I think thenewspaper we're buying would be damaged dramatically," he said. Singleton characterized himself as something of a white knight, promisingpeace to the two newspapers that have been battling for three years overwhether the Deseret News can switch from an afternoon newspaper to a morningpublication like the Tribune.

The Tribune has claimed the joint operating agreement between the twonewspapers would require the Deseret News to purchase a new press line soboth papers could be printed at the same time and also to absorb othercosts, such as buying additional delivery vehicles.

And the Tribune opposes Deseret News plans to spend revenues from the jointoperating company, called the Newspaper Agency Corp., to increase theDeseret News circulation. That would harm the Tribune's profitabilitybecause the Tribune gets 58 percent of NAC net revenues.

"The biggest value we can bring is to eliminate this war," Singleton said,adding he believes both newspapers would "thrive and excel if we get rid ofthis awful battle."

However, NewsMedia Group is known for acquiring newspapers and then lookingfor ways to cut costs to make the new member papers more profitable. Thathas often resulted in newsroom staff cuts to reduce payroll costs, somethingthe Tribune's managers have opposed.

Closing arguments in the hearing for a preliminary injunction are scheduledfor today. Campbell is then expected to take several days before ruling. Singleton said he would not sell the Tribune to the Deseret News.

"This community has grown accustomed to two newspaper voices. It would beill-served without those two voices. It should have two voices for the restof our lives," he said.

Tony Rampton, attorney for Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Co., the familycompany that still manages the newspaper, asked Singleton why he would buythe Tribune if the option agreement might require him to sell it back to thefamily in 19 months.

"First of all, it's an option. It's not certain. They may not exercise theoption. They may not be able to. And, if they do, we believe, with the warsettled, the Tribune will be worth a lot more money than it is today," hesaid, and, if the family bought it back, they would have to pay that highermarket value.

"We'd profit from that if we don't keep it," Singleton said.

The family was negotiating with AT&T and had offered to pay $180 million forthe newspaper when AT&T finally reopened talks it had tried to start withSingleton last summer.

Randy Frisch, Tribune chief operating officer, testified he believed thedeal was virtually signed to sell the newspaper back to the family inOctober. He said Tribune managers met with AT&T officers "who wanted toadvance the ball, to formalize a deal."

Frisch claimed AT&T just wanted out of owning the Tribune and he claimed itslawyers were willing to set a closing date early in the Thanksgiving week sothe deal with the family could be completed in December.

Tribune executives tried to confirm the closing date the next week but neverreached anyone at AT&T headquarters until Nov. 30 when a secretary phonedthem to set up a conference call for Dec. 1. But, on Dec. 1, AT&T officialstraveled to Salt Lake to tell them Singleton was buying all the Tribunestock from AT&T.

"We said they did not have the right to sell, that we would do everything wecould to defend our rights," Frisch testified.

AT&T attorney Steven Garfinkel said, "We just wanted out, out of the middleof a long-standing dispute." AT&T finally went with Singleton, Garfinkelsaid, "because it just didn't seem we were going to get better terms fromthe management group."

Rampton suggested Singleton was a willing buyer because he believed thatonce he was in the Tribune, the Deseret News would block any attempt by thefamily to buy the paper before the option expires in 2002.

"That is not true," Singleton said. "We entered into (the purchase agreementwith AT&T) and we did not have that representation." But he also said hebelieves "the option agreement may not be enforceable."

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