"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's rival, the LDS Church-owned Deseret News. The Deseret News tried unsuccessfully last year to buy the Tribune's stock from owner AT&T. "We're spending $200 million of our own money to buy a newspaper that we want to buy," Singleton said.
Heirs of the newspaper's founders continued to manage the Tribune even after it was acquired through mergers in 1997 with TCI and two years later by AT&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 Singleton violates that option agreement and they sued, asking Campbell to stop the sale until the issue can go to trial.
But Singleton claimed Tribune stories about the proposed sale could damage the newspaper's value if they continue for several months. "I think the newspaper we're buying would be damaged dramatically," he said. Singleton characterized himself as something of a white knight, promising peace to the two newspapers that have been battling for three years over whether the Deseret News can switch from an afternoon newspaper to a morning publication like the Tribune.
The Tribune has claimed the joint operating agreement between the two newspapers would require the Deseret News to purchase a new press line so both papers could be printed at the same time and also to absorb other costs, such as buying additional delivery vehicles.
And the Tribune opposes Deseret News plans to spend revenues from the joint operating company, called the Newspaper Agency Corp., to increase the Deseret News circulation. That would harm the Tribune's profitability because 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 of this awful battle."
However, NewsMedia Group is known for acquiring newspapers and then looking for ways to cut costs to make the new member papers more profitable. That has often resulted in newsroom staff cuts to reduce payroll costs, something the Tribune's managers have opposed.
"This community has grown accustomed to two newspaper voices. It would be ill-served without those two voices. It should have two voices for the rest of our lives," he said.
Tony Rampton, attorney for Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Co., the family company that still manages the newspaper, asked Singleton why he would buy the Tribune if the option agreement might require him to sell it back to the family in 19 months.
"First of all, it's an option. It's not certain. They may not exercise the option. They may not be able to. And, if they do, we believe, with the war settled, the Tribune will be worth a lot more money than it is today," he said, and, if the family bought it back, they would have to pay that higher market 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 for the newspaper when AT&T finally reopened talks it had tried to start with Singleton last summer.
Randy Frisch, Tribune chief operating officer, testified he believed the deal was virtually signed to sell the newspaper back to the family in October. He said Tribune managers met with AT&T officers "who wanted to advance the ball, to formalize a deal."
Frisch claimed AT&T just wanted out of owning the Tribune and he claimed its lawyers were willing to set a closing date early in the Thanksgiving week so the deal with the family could be completed in December.
Tribune executives tried to confirm the closing date the next week but never reached anyone at AT&T headquarters until Nov. 30 when a secretary phoned them to set up a conference call for Dec. 1. But, on Dec. 1, AT&T officials traveled to Salt Lake to tell them Singleton was buying all the Tribune stock from AT&T.
"We said they did not have the right to sell, that we would do everything we could to defend our rights," Frisch testified.
AT&T attorney Steven Garfinkel said, "We just wanted out, out of the middle of a long-standing dispute." AT&T finally went with Singleton, Garfinkel said, "because it just didn't seem we were going to get better terms from the management group."
Rampton suggested Singleton was a willing buyer because he believed that once he was in the Tribune, the Deseret News would block any attempt by the family to buy the paper before the option expires in 2002.
"That is not true," Singleton said. "We entered into (the purchase agreement with AT&T) and we did not have that representation." But he also said he believes "the option agreement may not be enforceable."