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The Business of Newspapers: Do JOAs Still Work? (Have They Ever?)

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Business of Newspapers: Do JOAs Still Work? (Have They Ever?)

Article excerpt

When the Hearst Corp. announced it would buy the San Francisco Chronicle, effectively becoming the city's monopoly daily newspaper owner, it was the latest sign that the city was on its way toward becoming a one-daily newspaper town.

Hearst has to try to sell the San Francisco Examiner before it can close or merge it with the Chronicle, its joint operating agreement (joa) partner. But observers say it's unlikely anyone would buy the trailing afternoon paper without any of the protections of the current joa.

The San Francisco joa is one of 28 approved by the U.S. Justice Department under the Newspaper Preservation Act. With the intent of keeping competition alive, the act lets newspapers pool operations as long as they stayed independent editorially.

Twenty-nine years after the act was passed, only 13 joas remain nationally. San Francisco's seems the next likely to dissolve, shy of its 2005 expiration date, leading to the now-familiar question: have joas, created to save newspapers, served their purpose?

Critics say joas at best prolonged the lives of some competing newspapers, particularly in small to mid-size markets.

While some joas have dissolved because one of the partners decided to sell, the circulation spiral has been the main enemy, says joa expert Steve Lacy, who heads Michigan State University's journalism department.

Once one paper gets a slight circulation lead, advertisers flock to it, and the trailing paper gets caught in a cycle of declining ads and circulation until it finally succumbs, Lacy explains.

The Washington Star illustrated this phenomenon. When it closed in 1981, it had 40% of its market's readers but only 25% of the advertising, Lacy says.

"joas will work for a period of time, but ultimately they will close down for the same reasons that closed competing newspapers," he says.

The Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen says while Seattle's joa helped his family-owned paper survive in the short term, he opposes joas on principle because they're faulty economic models that ignore the marketplace forces that are dooming metro dailies.

"I have no problems at all with people talking about repealing it," he says of the Newspaper Preservation Act. …

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