Life after the War

By Morton, John | American Journalism Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Life after the War


Morton, John, American Journalism Review


Denver's JOA allowing both papers to publish in the morning may ensure the health of each.

Finally the nation may get a joint operating agreement between two newspapers that will honor fully from the beginning the intent of the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 and assure readers in Denver continued editorial competition.

The reason for this assertion is that both the Denver Post and the Denver Rocky Mountain News will continue to publish in the morning, meaning that neither newspaper will suffer from a sure death sentence by being forced into afternoon publication.

At one time or another 28 cities had joint operating agreements. Only 13 remain, and the cause for the reduction in almost every instance was the continuing decline of an afternoon paper

Of the existing agreements, only in Seattle do the partners--the Times and the Post-Intelligencer--both publish in the morning, and only since March. When Seattle's JOA began in 1983, the Times remained an afternoon paper. Its owners, starting to feel the negative effects of the afternoon syndrome (chiefly traffic congestion hampering delivery), renegotiated the JOA to move to the morning--at considerable cost to the Times' profits.

In many other JOA cities, combining business and production operations to cut costs while maintaining competitive news operations only delayed the inevitable. The morning paper grew; the afternoon paper shrank. Of course, when many of these JOAs were created, from the 1930s through the 1960s, newspaper owners had no idea that evening newspapers in big cities would become endangered species.

By the 1970s the effects of the afternoon syndrome had become apparent, but still JOAs formed in seven cities from the mid-1970s through 1990 placed one paper in the morning and the other in the afternoon. If history continues to disfavor afternoon publication, at some point the JOAs in these markets, too, will wind up publishing just a morning paper.

It is no accident that the four most recent joint operating agreements have initial terms lasting 50 to 100 years, rather than the previously common 25. (The Denver agreement is for 50.) In effect, these long-term contracts assure the owner of the struggling paper a continuing share of profits from the successful paper.

Before Denver can get a JOA, of course, the U.S. Justice Department must approve the arrangement. The Preservation Act requires at least one of the two papers wanting a JOA to prove that, without help from a corporate parent, it is in probable danger of financial failure. …

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