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Most JOAs are shotgun marriages. In Seattle, the newspaper industry is witnessing its first shotgun divorce.

The messy legal dispute now playing itself out in King County (Wash.) Superior Court between Hearst Corp.'s Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times, principally owned by Times Co. CEO Frank Blethen's family, is Exhibit A for the public policy argument to repeal the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 -- and prevent any future newspaper joint operating agreement (JOA).

Documents emerging from the discovery process illustrate how this JOA, like nearly every single one of the 15 dead JOAs and the dozen that still survive, was conceived in cynicism. Just last week, a memo surfaced suggesting that the Blethen family, in 1985 -- barely two years after signing an agreement that was supposed to last until 2083 - - had already set a goal of moving to "a one-newspaper agency."

And nothing captures the loony logic that sustains JOAs quite like the memo Frank Blethen sent employees two weeks ago. It's a natural for parody -- and an anonymous wag quickly posted a hilarious one. Blethen's sing-songy rhythm is right out of Robert Evans' narration in the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture. ("Do I believe that metropolitan markets can no longer support two newspapers? Absolutely.")

He reprises his conspiracy theory that Hearst -- the company that owns the paper with the smaller profit-split, with the declining circulation, without a single printing press or delivery step van to its name -- has been cleverly "bleeding" the poor, poor pitiful Times.

But in a truly inspired note, Blethen suggests his JOA fix: Hearst should give back the profit points it got for allowing the Times to publish mornings, and the "second paper" (read, the P-I) should change its "format... to make it a complementary niche product like in Chicago or Boston." Now, put aside whether such vigorous metros as the Chicago Sun-Times or Boston Herald regard themselves as simply "niche" products. The fact is, those tabs are what they are because they are in competitive markets that force them to respond to changing times. JOAs, on the other hand, distort markets. A couple of publishers who should be competing are allowed to rig their ad and home-delivery rates, and merchants and readers are expected to just suck it up.

There's a name for "second papers" in JOAs whose circulations drift down to "niche" levels: old. As in the old Nashville Banner. The old Tulsa Tribune. The old Miami News. As we will likely see again in Seattle, JOAs do not preserve newspapers. They keep them artificially alive only so long as it's convenient.

Congress seems in a mood to fiddle with media regulations, and perhaps re-impose the ban on newspaper/broadcasting cross-ownership. We would all be better off if the legislators abandoned that idea, and fixed instead another wrong-headed legacy of the 1970s by repealing the Newspaper Preservation Act.

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Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1U9WA
Date:Sep 15, 2003
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