JOAs: No Guarantee of Saving a Paper

By Morton, John | American Journalism Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

JOAs: No Guarantee of Saving a Paper


Morton, John, American Journalism Review


When the bitter strike against the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News began last July, some employees and union officials suggested that the joint-operating agency that publishes both papers provoked the strike because of a secret agenda--to shut down the News.

Their theory was that profits would soar if the agency had to publish only one newspaper, and that the strike was part of a plot to bring this about. While I think this theory is flawed, for reasons I will explain below, its currency among embittered strikers is understandable.

In the 28 cities that have had joint-operating agencies at one time or another, readers in only 18 still enjoy the benefits of two editorially competitive newspapers. In the other 10, only one newspaper remains. This decline in editorial competition in joint-agency cities came about for essentially the same reasons as those behind the decline in the number of cities with two or more newspapers competing both editorially and commercially.

In 1933, when the first joint-operating agency was created in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there were 243 U.S. cities with two or more dailies competing across the board--for readers, advertising and news (down from 502 ten years earlier). The story since then is all too familiar: The Great Depression killed competition in about 100 cities. Shortages during World War II added to the toll. Then in the early 1950s, when only 91 competitive cities remained, the growth of television and the suburbs, among other things, began to kill off more number two newspapers.

By early this year, only eight cities had commercially competitive metropolitan papers, with some barely holding on.

Editorial competition, at least, survived in those additional markets in which joint-operating agencies were created to merge circulation, advertising and production functions. The 1930s brought creation of four joint agencies; the 1940s another four; the 1950s (when television began capturing large amounts of advertising) brought 10 new joint agencies; and the 1960s four more. In the 25 years since then, only six new joint agencies have been created.

Not all of the JOAs were lasting: Chattanooga's was dissolved in 1966, then renewed in 1980; Anchorage's ended in a lawsuit after only a few years; Columbus, Ohio's disappeared when its contract expired after 25 years; and seven others ended for various reasons. JOAs still exist in St. Louis and Miami--two owners still share profits--although only one newspaper is published in each city. …

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