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ANOTHER JOA, THE THIRD IN 15 MONTHS, BIDS ADIEU In Evansville, Ind., Scripps prepares to publish the Courier & Press come January.

Born after a major Ohio River flood in 1937, the joint operating agreement (JOA) sustaining two newspapers in Evansville, Ind., is being washed away by the economic realities of 1998.

The locally owned evening paper, the 20,400-circulation Evansville Press, will cease publication Jan. 1. The 60,300-circulation morning paper, the Evansville Courier, owned by the E.W. Scripps Co. of Cincinnati, will add "& Press" to its name, people to its newsroom and space to its newshole. And the southern Indiana city of about 126,000 people will join El Paso, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn., as the third community in 15 months to lose its afternoon paper to a shuttered JOA.

Since Scripps announced in 1993 that it would not extend the JOA, the Press gamely pressed on under Hartmann Publications. Its owner, Robert Hartmann, had been a Scripps executive in 1986 when it decided to buy the Courier and sell the Press. Hartmann bought the afternoon paper, which had been the tenant in a host-tenant JOA.

Bill Jackson, now president and editor of the Press, has worked at both papers at one time or another in his 35 years in Evansville. "I give Bob Hartmann a lot of credit for the way he's handled this," Jackson says. "He could have sold out earlier." He also could have cut the newsroom staff, which until recently numbered more than 40, to be more in line with a circulation that had peaked at 47,000 in 1970 -- the year the Newspaper Preservation Act was passed.

Evansville did not fall under provisions of the act, which was intended to preserve a community's second editorial voice by allowing publishers to jointly operate the business side while retaining separate editorial staffs. It was created by an act of God, the "catastrophic flood" of 1937, Jackson says, which led two very competitive papers to join forces to resume publishing, which included publishing a single Sunday paper under a third news staff.

While the Press has sold its name and circulation list to Scripps, it's going to publish through Dec. 31. Those leaving the payroll then will receive one week's pay for each year of service plus pay for vacation they would have taken in 1999, Jackson says (assuming the IRS approves), as well as partial payment of medical insurance premiums for the first three months of the new year. (Asked his plans, Jackson says, "I'm waiting for the New York Times to call.")

The publisher of the Courier, Vince Vawter, expects circulation to rise at least 10,000 when the Press folds. "The editorial staff will be expanded along with the newshole," he says, with Press features appearing in the Courier & Press. The absence of an afternoon press run will let the company run even more commercial work on its flexo presses, which have seen a tenfold increase in such jobs in the last three years, Vawter says.

"Common sense will prevail" in setting ad rates, he says. Advertisers "will probably not see any big increases in the rates in '99," while readers will see more room for letters to the editor. The loss of a second news staff is lamentable, Jackson and Vawter both say, but Vawter says, "by and large, the two voices are not that dissimilar" when it comes to editorial positions.

The area "has probably had a luxury of having two newspapers in this size town," Vawter says, which has "run against the grain of economic realities." Stephen Barnett, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and a student of the preservation act, says those realities have moved from saving a newspaper to saving money, period.

Companies involved in JOAs "can make more money publishing one newspaper than two," Barnett says, noting that since 1970, seven JOAs were created "but 15 now have been dissolved into one-paper monopolies." And without a "technical merger" of two papers, the U.S. Justice Dept. is unlikely to intervene to save the second paper, which it did in St. Louis in the early 1980s. The feds saw to it that the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was sold, "but it collapsed anyway," he says.

Of the remaining JOAs, Scripps is involved in three and MediaNews Group of Denver has a stake in two. William Dean Singleton, MediaNews' president and CEO, says a JOA can thrive when its two papers have an equal presence in a market. "There's no reason for the senior partner to renew the term if the evening paper isn't adding anything to the franchise," he says.

In York, Pa., MediaNews publishes the 41,000-circulation evening York Dispatch in a JOA with Buckner News Alliance, which publishes the 43,000-circulation morning York Daily Record. With the evening paper strong in the core market and the morning editions strong in the outlying market, each paper plays "an important role not only in serving the community," Singleton says, "but also the company that publishes them."

In West Virginia last July, MediaNews acquired the Charleston Daily Mail, whose evening circulation of 42,000 trails the 52,000-circulation morning Charleston Gazette. But as in York, the papers "are relatively equal in size," with complimentary circulation bases in the core and outlying markets, Singleton says.

More important, "in addition to buying the Daily Mail, we bought our share of the JOA," he says -- Charleston Newspapers. "While we publish the evening paper, we own half of the entire company," helping to ensure a future for both papers.

That was not the thrust of the Newspaper Preservation Act, Singleton says. "It guaranteed two editorial voices, but it didn't guarantee it forever." In a JOA, "it's not who's got the biggest circulation, it's what proportionate share of the overall company do you own."

-- P.W.
COPYRIGHT 1998 The Cole Group
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Date:Sep 28, 1998
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