- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A son of wealthy industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr. has agreed to buy The Salt Lake Tribune, ending uncertainty about the future of Utah’s largest newspaper that has long been an independent watchdog in a state where the Mormon church wields significant power.

Digital First Media, which runs major publications in Colorado and California, reached an agreement to sell the newspaper to Paul Huntsman, the company said Wednesday. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The Huntsmans, who run a major cancer research center and whose name adorns university arenas and college programs, are one of the most influential families in Utah.

They are Mormon, but Paul Huntsman said the Tribune’s role in the community won’t change. His father made similar comments two years ago when he disclosed that the family was interested in buying the Tribune to preserve a crucial independent news voice.

“It is important that The Salt Lake Tribune continues in its indispensable role for our community and to be locally owned,” Paul Huntsman said in a statement. “We hope to ensure the Tribune’s independent voice for future generations.”

The sale still has raised some concerns, with another Salt Lake City newspaper, the Deseret News, owned by the Mormon church. Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who was part of a group also interested in buying The Tribune, said it is important to preserve the paper’s independence and progressive editorial voice.

“We want to make sure there’s not some kind of deal or backroom understanding between Deseret News Publishing and the Huntsman family,” Dabakis said.

The purchase fits an emerging ownership trend in the newspaper industry of wealthy business figures buying publications because they value their civic importance, media analyst Ken Doctor said.

In recent years, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post; Boston Red Sox owner John Henry has purchased the Boston Globe; and Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has bought the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson secretly bought The Las Vegas Review-Journal last fall, but that sale has been heavily scrutinized over concerns about transparency.

Salt Lake Tribune Publisher and Editor Terry Orme, who has been advocating for local ownership of the paper, called the sale good news. But he cautioned that the deal has not closed and that he has yet to talk with Paul Huntsman about the vision for the newspaper and who will manage it.

“We have a long ways to go before we know how the future is going to look,” Orme said. “However, I welcome this news very much. I am very pleased that it appears the Tribune will once again be owned by a Utahn.”

Jon Huntsman Sr. founded a roughly $13 billion company that refines raw materials that go into thousands of products.

Paul Huntsman is CEO of Huntsman Family Investments, a private investment arm. Another son, Jon Huntsman Jr., is a former Utah governor and ambassador to China who ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2012.

The sale comes after major changes to a longstanding joint operating agreement with the Deseret News in 2013 cut the Tribune’s profits nearly in half.

The church-owned paper got 70 percent of the profits in exchange for an undisclosed, one-time lump sum to Digital First Media. In the previous agreement, the Tribune had 58 percent of the profits.

The deal triggered a lawsuit by a group of former staffers who allege the terms violated antitrust laws and would lead to the Tribune’s demise. The group’s attorney, Karra Porter, said she and lawyers for the newspaper’s owners plan to meet Monday to discuss the sale and a possible resolution of the legal challenge.

It was not known if the profit split was renegotiated in the sale. Digital First Media declined to answer additional questions.

Orme, the longtime newsroom leader, said the uncertainty about the future of the newspaper has made it hard for him to retain top journalists and plan for the future.

The Huntsman purchase is the best-case scenario for the Tribune, said Doctor, the analyst.

“You have a local owner with deep pockets and a civic commitment who wants to see a long-term survival of a strong newspaper,” Doctor said. “That stands in distinction to many of the shorter-term players, like Digital First Media.”

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