The closings of venerable newspapers this year in Denver, Seattle and possibly Tucson have generated more than their share of hand-wringing in the national press.
"Extra! Extra! Are newspapers dying?" screamed a USA Today headline following the conversion last month of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer into an online-only newspaper.
But lost amid all of this Sturm und Drang is the fact that these closings are the continuation of a long-standing trend toward single-newspaper operations in cities that had been publishing two dailies under Joint Operating Agreements (JOAs).
Under a JOA, two newspapers under separate ownership agree to combine business operations, but publish separate newspapers with competing newsrooms. Profits from the combined operation normally are split between the two partners.
This type of arrangement was codified under the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, but many JOAs existed long before that.
Of the nearly 30 JOAs that have been approved in the U.S., only five with two completely separate publications will remain following the resolution of the Tucson Citizen situation.
They are: Charleston, West Virginia; Detroit, Michigan; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Salt Lake City, Utah; and York, Pennsylvania. In a sixth market – Las Vegas, Nevada – the Las Vegas Sun is a section tucked inside the Las Vegas Review Journal.
The trend has accelerated in 2009 due to the severity of the current recession, and these closings have garnered more attention as declining ad revenue has put the newspaper industry under increasing pressure.
However, a number of other JOA newspapers have been shuttered over the past several years, including those in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2008; Cincinnati, Ohio in 2007, and Birmingham, Alabama in 2005. The Albuquerque JOA, in fact, was the oldest, begun in 1933 during the Depression.
In most cases, one of the two papers – usually the one published in the afternoon cycle – experiences a steady circulation decline until it ceases to become profitable. As reading habits have changed, afternoon newspapers have dwindled.
The existing two-newspaper JOAs have been changing business models as well. Earlier this year, the joint agency in Charleston began publishing both newspapers on the morning cycle. The Detroit JOA has begun restricting home delivery on certain days of the week.
Often the U.S. Justice Department will require the owner of the failing JOA newspaper to offer it for sale outside of the joint agency. Only in rare instances has a bona fide buyer emerged for these newspapers. Once a newspaper is closed, both owners typically stay in partnership, sharing profits