Justice Department Reverses Its Position on California JOA

Article excerpt

Justice Department reverses its position on California JOA

In a surprise move, the U.S. Justice Department has switched its position and announced that it will recommend to the attorney general approval of a joint operating agreement between the Manteca Bulletin and the Manteca News in Central California.

The announcement came before a scheduled June 10 hearing on the issue, which had been called off.

Bulletin publisher Darell Phillips said on May 25 that the Justice Department had notified attorneys for both the Bulletin and the News that it will soon reverse its earlier recommendation to the attorney general that the JOA be denied.

The notice to the attorneys came shortly after department antitrust lawyers took depositions for a week in Stockton from supporters and opponents of the agreement.

"I think that on the basis of what they heard they decided there really is a failing newspaper here," Phillips told E&P.

He was referring to the weekly News, which is across the street from the Bulletin. If Attorney General Richard Thornburgh approves the Justice Department recommendation it will mean the creation of the first JOA between a daily and a weekly.

No attorney general ever has failed to approve a proposed JOA since such arrangements were permitted under the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970.

However, the Justice Department decision quickly came under attack by Bruce B. Brugmann, president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He fired off a letter to Thornburgh, urging him to reorder the public hearings as scheduled or reschedule them for late fall to permit local JOA opponents to "represent the public interest in preserving First Amendment, community values and independent journalism in America."

Local opposition to the merger has come from a group called No Way JOA, composed of Manteca News employees and residents, and another organization, the Committee to Save Manteca.

Brugmann, a longtime, vociferous foe of JOAs, wrote to Thornburgh and other Justice Department officials: "We strongly protest this sudden and inexplicable collapse of the Department of Justice and its abrogation of the public interest in moving to approve this highly contested JOA only 18 days before a public hearing and after months of valiant and well-researched and argued opposition and recommendations by your antitrust division. …